Using a supercomputer and big data to find stories of black women

A sociologist is utilizing unique methods to uncover more historical knowledge about black women:

Mendenhall, who is also a professor of African American studies and urban and regional planning, is heading up the interdisciplinary team of researchers and computer scientists working on the big data project, which aims to better understand black women’s experience over time. The challenge in a project like this is that documents that record the history of black women, particularly in the slave era, aren’t necessarily going to be straightforward explanations of women’s feelings, resistance, or movement. Instead, Mendenhall and her team are looking for keywords that point to organizations or connections between groups that can indicate larger movements and experiences.

Using a supercomputer in Pittsburgh, they’ve culled 20,000 documents that discuss black women’s experience from a 100,000 document corpus (collection of written texts). “What we’re now trying to do is retrain a model based on those 20,000 documents, and then do a search on a larger corpus of 800,000, and see if there are more of those documents that have more information about black women,” Mendenhall added…

Using topic modeling and data visualization, they have started to identify clues that could lead to further research. For example, according to Phys.Org, finding documents that include the words “vote” and “women” could indicate black women’s participation in the suffrage movement. They’ve also preliminarily found some new texts that weren’t previously tagged as by or about black women.

Next up Mendenhall is interested in collecting and analyzing data about current movements, such as Black Lives Matter.

It sounds like this involves putting together the best algorithm to do pattern recognition that would take humans too long to process. This can only be done with some good programming as well as a significant collection of texts. Three questions come quickly to mind:

  1. How would one report findings from this data in typical outlets for sociological or historical research?
  2. How easy would it be to apply this to other areas of inquiry?
  3. Is this data mining or are there hypothesis that can be tested?

There are lots of possibilities like this with big data but it remains to be seen how useful it might be for research.

Exodus of black residents from Chicago’s South Side

A long-time resident of Chicago’s South Side discusses the movement of black residents to other locations:

For South Side residents, the writing has been on the wall. Starting as a slow trickle into the suburbs as industrial jobs began drying up in the 1970s, black flight increased in the 2000s, with blacks seeking the suburbs like never before — as well as places like Georgia, Florida or Texas, according to U.S. Census data.

The population shift has folks like myself, left behind on the South Side, feeling like life after the rapture, with relatives, good friends and classmates vanishing and their communities shattering. A recent study found that nearly half of the city’s African-American men between 20 and 24 were unemployed or not attending college…

Every senseless death, every random shooting and every bullet-riddled weekend means another family, another frightened parent must make the decision to stay or go.

Those of us left behind must deal with the aftershocks: lessening political clout, limited public services and the creep of poverty and crime into neighborhoods like South Shore and Auburn-Gresham.

Even as some trumpet the demographic inversion of metropolitan areas other research suggests poor neighborhoods, particularly in Rust Belt cities, can often slowly lose residents. On one side, there is a lot of attention paid to whiter and wealthier residents moving into urban cores and hip neighborhoods while on the other side, little attention is granted to disadvantaged neighborhoods. In some of these neighborhoods, it is remarkable just how much open space there can be as buildings decay and few people clamor to move in (think of Detroit and its urban prairies as an example).

“How [residential] segregation destroys black wealth”

A recent New York Times editorial highlights the ongoing effects of residential segregation:

Despite being better qualified financially, black and Latino testers were shown fewer homes than their white peers, were often denied information about special incentives that would have made the purchase easier, and were required to produce loan pre-approval letters and other documents when whites were not.

Moreover, real estate agents enforced residential and school segregation by steering home buyers into neighborhoods based on race. Whites were encouraged to live where the schools were mainly white; African-Americans where schools were disproportionately black; and Latinos where schools were disproportionately Latino…

This history of discrimination has taken an enormous toll on black wealth, as is shown in research by Douglas Massey and Jonathan Tannen at Princeton University’s Office of Population Research. In 1970, two years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, for example, the average well-off black American lived in a neighborhood where potential home wealth, as measured by property values, stood at about only $50,000 — as opposed to $105,000 for affluent whites and $56,000 for poor whites.

By 2010, affluent African-Americans had passed poor whites in potential home wealth but had fallen further behind affluent whites. There is more than money at stake, Mr. Massey and Mr. Tannen write, because home values “translate directly into access to higher quality education given that public schools in the United States are financed by real estate taxes.”

From de jure to de facto segregation. The resources of the past went to white suburbia and the deck is still often stacked against black and Latino urban residents. And the wealth differences are large and this has consequences for subsequent generations.

This editorial appears to be motivated by a recent housing discrimination complaint. This reminds me of the conclusion of American Apartheid where the authors argue that although the United States has the laws on the books that would even out housing opportunities, we often lack the political will to enforce them. This book was published over twenty years ago and there appears to be truth to it still today…

Summarizing “How the Federal Government Built White Suburbia”

Richard Rothstein discusses how white suburbia was promoted by the federal government. Here are some of the ways in which white neighborhoods were promoted:

  • Federally funded public housing got its start in the New Deal. From the very beginning, public housing was segregated by race. Harold L. Ickes, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the most liberal member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brain trust, proposed the “neighborhood composition rule,” which said that segregated public housing would preserve the segregated character of neighborhoods. (This was the liberal position. Conservatives preferred to build no public housing for black people at all.)
  • After World War II, the Federal Housing Administration (a precursor to HUD) and the Veterans Administration hired builders to mass-produce American suburbs—from Levittown near New York to Daly City in the Bay Area—in order to ease the post-war housing shortage. Builders received federal loans on the explicit condition that homes would not be sold to black homebuyers.
  • The Housing Act of 1949, a tentpole of President Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, greatly expanded the reach of the public housing program, which was then producing the most popular form of housing (!) in the country. In an effort to kill the bill, conservatives tried to tack on a “poison pill” to the legislation: an amendment that would have required public housing to be integrated.

Read on for more of the influential policies and decisions. In other words, that the American suburbs were dominated by whites was not a mistake or accident; it was the intent. And even though suburbs today are increasingly diverse, these earlier government actions still have significant consequences that can’t be ignored simply because they occurred in the past.

Viewing a neighborhood differently with white vs. black residents

A recent study asked people to look at the same neighborhood but with differences in the race of the residents:

In a study led by sociologist Maria Krysan at the University of Illinois at Chicago, people were asked to assess short video clips of neighborhoods with black and white actors posing as residents. Whites rated more positively the places that appeared to be white neighborhoods, compared to when the very same neighborhoods were shown with blacks. These two clips used in the study capture the same middle-class neighborhood in Detroit.

An interesting twist to use videos with similar scenes. But, the findings follow in a long line of studies that suggest whites and blacks are treated differently in mortgage applications, searches for rental housing, applying for jobs, buying a car, and other areas. Just having a different skin color provokes people to different perceptions and actions. Whites generally don’t want to live in neighborhoods with blacks though the opposite is not true. And just seeing blacks on the street might be enough to push whites away…

The doomed black suburb of Lincoln Heights, Ohio

Here is a look at an early black suburb outside of Cincinnati that has fallen on hard times in recent years:

Then, as Lincoln Heights residents waited to incorporate, the county allowed white landowners in nearby Woodlawn to incorporate, giving much of the western part of what would have been Lincoln Heights to the white town. Then the county gave much of the eastern part of what would have been Lincoln Heights to another new white town, Evendale, including the land where the Wright plant was located. The residents of Lincoln Heights challenged this move in court but lost…

When the county finally allowed the city to incorporate, in 1946, the boundaries were radically different than black residents had once hoped, encircling about 10 percent—one square mile—of the original proposal. The village now included no major factories or plants and no industrial tax base…

But over time, Lincoln Heights residents found it more difficult to maintain that sense of community. For one thing, the jobs in nearby towns in factories and chemical plants started to disappear as American manufacturing began to shrink in the 1970s and 1980s. As unemployment rose, Lincoln Heights lacked a tax base deep enough to underwrite community development and other social-welfare programs. Soon, it became obvious to anyone who grew up in Lincoln Heights that if you wanted to make something of yourself, you had to get out. People who grew up in Lincoln Heights and were lucky enough to go away to college didn’t come back. Those who stayed largely were the ones who couldn’t get out…

Last year, two nonprofit groups, the Cincinnatus Association and Citizens for Civic Renewal, put out a study that concluded that Cincinnati and its suburbs needed to cooperate—consolidate local governments and share services—to thrive. The idea was supported by an editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer, which argued that cooperation could reduce inequality.

This is a common story among American cities and suburbs: when annexation boxes in communities, they lose the possibility of enlarging their tax base through acquiring more land and development opportunities. See David Rusk’s work in Cities Without Suburbs for more about how elastic cities – those that could annex because of different state laws (primarily in the South and West as compared to the Rust Belt) – have more positive social and economic outcomes. Any suburb would have a hard time recovering from the loss of major job centers and that it was a black community only made it worse.

This case also contradicts the argument that minorities moving to the suburbs is necessarily a positive thing. There are many poor non-white suburban communities and it may be even more difficult to provide social services and pursue economic development there.

For a look at some of the early black suburbs in the United States, see Andrew Wiese’s Places of Their Own.

The “Black Tax”: higher property taxes for black homeowners in order to eventually seize homes

A new study looks at a practice common in Chicago and other cities where raised property taxes for black residents helped others take their homes:

Kahrl’s case study, which was released this month by the Journal of Urban History, traces the practice of tax-lien speculation to a 1951 reform in Illinois state law called the Revenue Act. During the same years when “redlining” emerged as a severely racially discriminatory mortgage practice, assessors in cities such as Chicago systemically over-valued homes in black neighborhoods for property-tax purposes…

Tax-lien speculation proved to be one hell of a business. Over the course of six months in 1973, for example, Gray acquired the deeds to 93 homes in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood for a total of $70,000. Each parcel was worth as much as $20,000 at the time—and potentially much, much more to speculators once all the neighborhood’s black residents had been evicted…

Not every tax-lien sale resulted in a transfer of deed, but they always resulted in a transfer of wealth. Many homeowners managed to pay off their liens at high interest rates—often 18 percent, the legal ceiling—along with a host of fees. Making real money depended on finding the poorest and most vulnerable owners in the poorest but most over-assessed neighborhoods. This practice was perfectly legal. The “Black Tax” was law…

The remarkably resilient predatory-tax-lien business continues to thrive, despite efforts at reform. The industry is enormous. Late in 2014, the Abell Foundation published a report on the state of the practice in Baltimore City. In 2013, the city sold tax liens for more than 2,000 owner-occupied homes. Almost one-tenth of these liens were attached to water bills. In 2014, of some 6,690 tax liens sold, 2,236 were for owner-occupied homes.

Given the interest, fees, and court costs, a homeowner’s $500 delinquent tax or water bill can mushroom to $3,000 over a two-year window—the time an owner has to pay down the lien. According to the report, there were 2,805 pending tax-lien foreclosure cases in Baltimore City in 2014. Noting the difficulty in tracking these tax-foreclosure evictions, the Abell Foundation report’s authors warn that in Baltimore, the “tax sale can lead to evictions, homelessness, and property vacancies and abandonment in a city already plagued by all three.”

More inequality via race and property in the United States. As if residential segregation wasn’t enough – ongoing lending practices and tax policies continue to make it difficult for blacks and other poor residents to build wealth over time.