The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Solving America’s race problem one byte at a time

Elicia John outside the American University Kogod School of Business in Washington. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

When I met Elicia John in 1994, she was a ninth-grader at Alice Deal Junior High in D.C. She’d created a “secret-admirers’ box” to promote the school’s Halloween dance. The names of admirers and the admired were written on paper and stuffed into the box. On the day of the dance, the names were read over the school loudspeaker.

The dance was a screaming success, Elicia’s secret-admirers’ box a huge draw.

Today, John is an assistant professor of marketing and a behavioral data scientist at American University. That box has been replaced by supercomputers, the names on pieces of paper replaced by terabytes of demographic data.

But her quest for jaw-dropping revelations continues.

What she’s working on now — projects such as discerning the impact of policing on mobility in Black communities and measuring how bias affects decision-making and behavior — could rock this country the way that Halloween box rocked her junior high.

How she learned such a highly technical skill set is pretty remarkable, too.

John attended D.C. public schools, then transferred to Prince George’s County public schools after her parents divorced. Isn’t a parental breakup supposed to crush a kid’s spirit? Aren’t D.C. and Prince George’s schools supposed to be the pits?

And yet, John went on to earn an engineering degree from the University of Maryland, a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard and a PhD from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

So where did she get the strength and inspiration to persevere?

Turns out, it was the very thing that some people tend to look at as hindering: growing up in Black D.C. and Prince George’s.

“After attending college in the Northeast and on the West Coast, I had a greater appreciation for the Black communities where I lived,” John said. “I grew up seeing a lot of highly motivated political activists, a lot of committed civic activists and a lot of strong Black women role models. I didn’t always realize it at the time, but I had a community helping to raise me. By the time I left for college, there wasn’t anything in life I felt was impossible to accomplish.”

In a widely publicized new study of social capital and economic mobility, Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his team say that having wealthy friends is one of the best ways for the less affluent to move up the economic ladder, especially the poor.

John does not recall having wealthy friends, just culturally rich Black communities. Her father was a Washington Post distributor; her mother got a job in the federal government right out of high school. They were not wealthy. But even after the divorce, they made sure their daughter had access to academic enrichment activities while showering her with love.

“I am blessed to have outstanding parents,” she said.

The Chetty study used data similar to the kind John uses in her research. Big data — in this case anonymous demographic information from 21 billion Facebook friends. The study concluded that wealthy people are using some of their influence and resources to help their less fortunate friends, and those interventions are putting those friends on a path of upward mobility.

In fact, the study says, having wealthy friends is one of the best predictors of economic gain by the poor.

Unfortunately, the Facebook data did not include the race of the friends.

Are lots of wealthy Whites befriending poor Blacks and helping them overcome life challenges? That would be amazing.

During a webinar on the study hosted by the Brookings Institution last week, Camille M. Busette, director of Brookings’ Race, Prosperity and Inclusion Initiative, called the lack of racial data “glaring and problematic.”

Chetty said that he hoped other researchers will build on the study and “find ways to measure race and measure interaction across racial lines.”

This is where John comes in. She has drawn on Chetty’s open-source raw data before. And she knows how to measure the impact of race. Not that she needs a computer to do that.

“Throughout my career, I’ve always had to find community with people who look like me, who are supportive and understand that we live in a society where bias has a tremendous impact on our life outcomes,” she said.

As an engineering major at the University of Maryland, she found support from Black women members of the National Society of Black Engineers. One of the reasons she enjoyed engineering was because it was science based; the correct answers were matters of fact, not opinion. But that couldn’t shield her from the realities of race and gender.

“Some people become very uncomfortable when a Black woman speaks with authority and confidence, particularly in technical areas,” she said. “It’s as if they can’t believe that the words they are hearing are coming from this Black body.”

As race continued to matter in her work, John decided to focus more on the study of human behavior, trying to get the bottom of the racial problems in the country.

She began extensive research on implicit and explicit bias, developed psychological tests and specialized algorithms. And the closer she looked, the more she realized that race was so deeply rooted in American life that it might as well be a part of the national DNA.

“We are not just physically segregated but also separated by the way we frame and view the world,” John said. “We haven’t been able to see beneath the surface because we have so many blinders. In my work, I hope to bring that which is unseen to light and get to the core of the problem.”

Change the DNA.

What a screaming success that would be.