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How Can Science Help Us Understand the Impacts of Systemic Racism?

map of richmond
(photo: University of Richmond)

Over the years many housing policies and planning practices have shaped how neighborhoods and cities in our nation have grown. Sadly, many of these decisions were made using unfairly derived metrics and survey results. Now science is being used to show the relationships between various neighborhoods, their historic policies, and their current quality of life. How can science help us understand the impacts of systemic racism?

Over 80 years ago, the Home Owners Loan Corporation assessed particular neighborhoods in US cities to grade them from A to D based on the area’s perceived safety for financial investment. More often than not, A grades were given to wealthier whiter areas marked by green lines, while predominantly black, ethnic, and low income areas were drawn in a red line and given a D grade.  These results impacted where banks and lenders gave financial opportunities and support. The redlined areas were subjected to prejudice and were systematically denied access to vital economic opportunities. In 1968 this practice was ended by the Fair Housing Act, but the damage had been done and the impacts linger to this day. 

Now, scientists are using data to show the disproportionally high health, economic, and even climate disparity experienced in redlined neighborhoods. For example, the Science Museum of Virginia’s study showed that formerly redlined areas across the US are several degrees warmer during the summer than their green-lined neighbors, potentially ramping up heat illness and mental health risks. Another study has shown how redlined neighborhoods experience higher rates of asthma-related hospital visits in California. Researchers in NYC have even shown how mothers in redlined areas experience increased risks of preterm birth.

These and many other scientific studies have shown that communities of color have been--and continue to be--subjected to inequalities across many facets of life that don't impact white communities in the same ways. As the nation's national dialogue continues to unfold, research like these studies will become more and more important in how we collectively approach resolutions. 

Science can provide data about the impacts of a decision made almost 80 years ago. but the decisions we make today can result inequitable outcomes for the next 80 years and beyond.