Researching racial equity: Building capacity for research and practice

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In J-PAL North America’s researching racial equity blog series, we discuss how research plays a critical role in identifying structural inequities in systems and policies that disproportionately affect communities of color. Noreen Giga, Racial Equity Project Lead, and Damon Jones, J-PAL affiliated professor (University of Chicago) and Scientific Advisor for J-PAL North America’s Racial Equity Project, reflect on J-PAL North America’s work to advance rigorous research on racial equity to date and discuss priorities for growing this capacity in the future. 

While there is an extensive history of research focused on racial equity, one might argue that in recent times, even more attention has been paid to this topic across a number of fields. Accordingly, there is room to expand the body of rigorous exploration of the structural and historical causes of racial inequity in mainstream economics. As an organization, J-PAL North America has an opportunity to fill a critical gap and support the generation of credible evidence on racial equity that rigorously investigates the root causes of poverty and racial disparities in order to inform potential solutions.  

Over the past year, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has supported our planning for how to effectively and intentionally prioritize research that addresses racial equity. In this post, we reflect on key milestones and takeaways from this work and share our plans for the future. 

Forming a committee of racial equity advisors

Our first priority involved convening a group of scholars with expertise on advancing research related to racial equity. We brought together researchers from within the J-PAL network, outside the J-PAL network, and outside the field of economics, to challenge and inform our understanding of research on race and racial equity and the potential role RCTs can have (or should not have) in this space. We prioritized the inclusion of Black, Latino/a, and Indigenous researchers who may be underrepresented in economics but are driving thought leadership on racial equity research. Our committee members included Randall Akee, Courtney Bonam, Gerald Daniels, Dania Francis, Corinne Low, and Silvia Robles. Their expertise in understanding how race and racism is studied in the social sciences, as well as their deep commitment to diversifying the field of economics, informed our focus. Over the past six months, we’ve grappled with a variety of questions: how do we define racial equity within research? How do we conduct ethical randomized evaluations related to racial equity? What support and information do researchers need to do this work well? What research collaborations and connections are needed to diversify J-PAL’s researcher network and encourage a wider set of questions and research agendas?

Defining racial equity

To begin to answer these questions, we drafted a working definition of racial equity, based off of a definition from Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy’s Centering Racial Equity Toolkit. We define racial and ethnic equity as the process of ensuring that race is no longer used to reinforce social hierarchies. Racial equity does not imply the absence of racial group identities, communities, or cultural traditions, but that such aspects are not used against individuals or groups in social, political, and legal domains. This process involves acknowledging and addressing historic harms and racial injustices, making amends, working to create racially just systems, policies, practices, attitudes, and cultural messages, and eliminating structures that reinforce differential outcomes by race. We used this definition in our updated Request for Proposals (RFPs) to encourage proposals that go beyond looking at differences in outcomes by race, and acknowledge, address, and advance racial equity. We note, of course, that no single definition of racial equity exists, but found the exercise nonetheless useful in guiding our work.

A blog series on conducting racial equity research

We also developed a blog series on researching racial equity to expand our own understanding of what it means to conduct research on this topic and share those lessons with researchers and research staff. Throughout the last year, we published six blog posts as a part of this series:

  • Evaluating “Ban the Box” policies: In part one, Amanda Agan (Rutgers) discusses her randomized evaluation with Sonja Starr investigating the impact of "Ban the Box" policies that disproportionately affect Black candidates. Results indicate that “Ban the Box” policies increased racial disparities in callback rates, harming Black applicants without criminal records. 
  • Racial discrimination, choice constraints, and policy implications: Part two of this series investigates the connections between racial discrimination in the housing market and environmental exposure risks. Peter Christensen (University of Illinois) discusses his ongoing series of evaluations, including a 2021 paper on housing discrimination.
  • Stratification economics: In part three, Dania Francis (UMass Boston) provides an overview of stratification economics and how the tenets of this framework can be applied to impact evaluations to examine systems, group membership, and relative power of groups across race, class, and gender. 
  • The value of centering lived experiences in the research process: In part four, Anthony Barrows, Managing Partner and Founder of the Center for Behavioral Design and Social Justice, discusses how to center lived experiences throughout the research process and in impact evaluations and shares practical tips and resources for researchers.
  • Integrating inclusive and asset-based communication throughout the research cycle: Part five summarizes our workshop on inclusive and asset-based communication  in research that was delivered at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management’s (APPAM) 2023 annual conference. Key principles for inclusive and asset-based communication and frameworks for embedding this in all stages of research are highlighted.
  • Administrative data bias in education: Part six discusses how subjectivity and structural inequity create bias in administrative data, using examples from the educational context, and offers potential solutions to navigate data and measurement bias in research.

Looking to the future

With the support of the racial equity advisory committee, we identified five main areas to guide J-PAL North America’s strategic vision for advancing racial equity in economics and economic research over the next three years.

  • Bringing more rigor to assessing and defining high-quality research related to racial equity.
  • Supporting researchers in developing high-quality RCT proposals related to racial equity.
  • Collaborating with researchers with expertise in racial equity research.
  • Increasing the diversity of J-PAL’s researcher network with a focus on racial diversity and diversity of disciplines outside of economics.
  • Supporting researchers of color in developing high-quality RCT proposals.

To inform this work, we will conduct an academic literature review on racial equity research and the scientific value of randomized evaluations in investigating and addressing the causes and consequences of racism. This literature review will guide the development of a racial equity research agenda across J-PAL North America’s topic-specific initiatives and updates to our RFPs to encourage research related to racial equity. We will develop and grow our collaboration with researchers, with a focus on researchers of color and researchers with racial equity expertise through targeted outreach and research support. 

With continued support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, we are excited to build upon the work we started this year and continue to explore how J-PAL North America can advance research related to racial equity, as well as support a more inclusive climate within economics. We look forward to continuing to learn from and connect with others in this space.    

The researching racial equity blog series features the contributions of researchers and partners in examining and addressing racial inequities and offers resources and tools for further learning. Part one shares an example of evaluating racial discrimination in employment. Part two features work quantifying housing discrimination. Part three gives an overview of stratification economics in the context of evaluations. Part four discusses how to center lived experiences throughout the research process and in impact evaluations. Part five shares guidance for incorporating inclusive and asset-based framing throughout the research cycle. Part six examines sources of bias in administrative data bias.

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