Statistics come up short for charges of racism in housing.

A lack of housing is a problem, and racism is simply wrong, so we have powerful emotional incentive to join the two matters into the story we tell about our society.  In a more-specific way, advocates and researchers have even more-powerful economic incentive to do so.  In that space, as with “equity audits” in schools, when a study is commissioned, it’s commissioned to find evidence to support a conclusion, not to determine whether joining the issues of housing and racism is accurate or productive.

For that reason, a Boston Globe article by Alexa Gagosz, headlined “‘Redlining never really went away’: Black Rhode Islanders still face racism when buying a home,” raises a number of red flags.  That’s a very strong claim, so it requires very strong evidence.

For starters, readers ought to be able to immediately find the report from which all the numbers and charts are taken, and unless I’m simply missing something, that isn’t the case.  (Some of the data and images from Gagosz’s article are not obviously to be found at her links, implying that there’s some additional source.)

Then, there are the unlike numbers presented side-by-side.  For example, the article informs the reader that 73% of white Americans owned homes in 2019 versus 42% of black Americans.  But when comparing Rhode Island, the number given is 62% of all Rhode Islanders versus 34% of black Rhode Islanders.  The source gives precise comparisons, so why muddy the waters?  Perhaps this was a simple mistake while writing, or perhaps the reason is that readers might then be distracted from advocates’ racial claims if they can easily see that homeownership is lower for white Rhode Islanders’, too.  This might be taken as evidence that housing is the more-fundamental problem in the Ocean State.

The conclusion becomes less clear than the advocates present it as it the details become more specific.  Consider:

In 2020, 1,288 Black and 16,037 white Rhode Islanders submitted mortgage loan applications for a home purchase. But 10 percent of Black applicants were denied while 6 percent of white applicants were denied.

“This goes so far beyond financial literacy,” [Brown professor Dr. Akilah] Dulin said. “It’s like redlining never really went away.”

The pandemic, she said, has only exacerbated the issue. Dulin found that nearly 20 percent of Black homeowners reported they were behind on mortgage payments, and few of them knew about the mortgage forbearance options made available during the pandemic.

Here, again, the numbers become a stumbling block.  A chart in the article says the denial rate for black applicants was 9%, versus 5% for white applicants; why did Gagosz add one percentage point to each in the text?  Just to get blacks into double digits? This discrepancy is a side issue, however.  While suspecting one isn’t permitted to observe such things, these days, we should observe that high rates of late mortgage payments for some group may (repeat, may) have some non-racist link to higher loan denial rates for that group.

Unfortunately, the reader cannot investigate because source for the claim about mortgage payments is not provided, so we have no way of knowing how the 20% stacks up against comparable statistics for other groups.

All in all, it is clear that Rhode Island has housing problems with which it must come to grips for everybody in the state, regardless of race.  What isn’t clear is that it is accurate or helpful to approach that problem with anti-racist-tinted glasses.  Doing so may risk a stumble and unnecessary injury.


Featured image by Tierra Mallorca on Unsplash.

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