Researchers tackle racial inequality

Lillie Roberson raises her arm as she kneels outside of the Sinai Plaza Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Miami during a protest in the memory of George Floyd in June. Photo: Associated Press
By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Lillie Roberson raises her arm as she kneels outside of the Sinai Plaza Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Miami during a protest in the memory of George Floyd in June. Photo: Associated Press

Researchers tackle racial inequality

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
Seven teams of professors from a range of disciplines were awarded funding through a U-LINK social equity rapid response challenge.

Almost anywhere you look, disparities linked to race and ethnicity are apparent in the United States.

The onset of COVID-19, and the higher incidence of cases in minority communities, as well as the death of Minnesota resident George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer only underscored the nation’s history of treating Blacks unequally.

But how can a university help to end the systemic racism in the United States and improve equality in things like health care, education, housing, and law enforcement?

One way is through research and scholarship. This summer, University of Miami faculty members assembled teams to delve into the roots of these inequities and to offer tools to local communities to reduce racial bias. Recently, seven teams were awarded funding through the University of Miami’s Laboratory for Integrative Research (U-LINK) social equity challenge and are now starting to work on their interdisciplinary projects. The one-year grants aim to elevate society’s awareness of racial inequities and to develop timely solutions for addressing oppression and discrimination in all its forms.

“There is no greater or more pressing issue of societal importance than that of anti-Black racism. We intentionally situated U-LINK in this space, intending that scientists and scholars from across the institution could work collaboratively to ask important questions that meld disciplinary boundaries,” said Erin Kobetz, the University’s vice provost for research and scholarship. “Through this [challenge], we have the power to make real and necessary progress toward equity.”

Founded in 2017, U-LINK brings together researchers from a range of disciplines across the University to solve complex, societal problems. It is a major initiative of the University’s strategic plan, called the Roadmap to Our New Century. Existing U-LINK teams are investigating novel, sustainable ways to protect our coastlines from sea level rise and working to understand how extremist groups attract and motivate members using social networks.

Kobetz said she was pleased by the enthusiastic response from University faculty for the social equity challenge. In fact, the request for proposals sent in June netted more than 25 project ideas, she added, with the most diverse representation of faculty since the U-LINK program began. Each proposal was reviewed by at least three faculty experts and was discussed and scored by all reviewers. Final funding decisions were made by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Scholarship in concert with a funding committee comprised of University leadership. In addition to the seven teams funded through the official call for proposals, Kobetz decided to fund two additional teams tackling issues of racial equity and justice that had received U-LINK funding in the past.

While one team aims to document the fissures that led to the prejudice of many Latin-American, Caribbean, Asian, and African immigrants against Blacks in Miami, another will create a training manual for local community members on how to craft a municipal budget that aligns with their priorities, instead of simply cutting money from police departments. Yet another will examine the factors that lead to early childhood resilience among Black children in Miami-Dade County, which is a key indicator of a child’s success in school and beyond.

The most successful teams were those that decided to focus on local issues where their research and suggestions could make the most impact, said Ali Mosser, senior manager of research, development, and strategy in the Office for the Vice Provost for Research and Scholarship.

“When teams tackled the issues that plague our Miami community, or targeted populations that are often ignored by scholars, or the University community, those proposals stood out,” Mosser said.

The proposals awarded grants include:

  • Antiracism and climate justice dialogues to build an interdisciplinary course and research inquiry

This project will organize several conversations and presentations around the ideas of antiracism and climate justice—or the idea that adaptation to climate change must be done in fair and equitable ways, so that the consequences for residents of all backgrounds are transparent and responsible. In addition, faculty will create a foundation for interdisciplinary classes or seminars offered by a community of climate scholars and researchers on campus, in collaboration with organizations from the Black communities in South Florida.

Principal investigator: Katharine Mach, associate professor in Marine Ecosystems and Society

  • Building Native American and global indigenous studies at the University of Miami

This team aims to elevate the indigenous history of South Florida as well as the hemisphere within the University of Miami’s curriculum, research, and social activities for students. In addition, the group will support and amplify the voices of Native American and indigenous students, faculty, and staff members on the University’s campuses.

Principal investigator: Tracy Devine Guzman, associate professor of modern languages and literatures

  • Community-based budgeting as an antidote to police violence

Instead of simply defunding police departments, as many protesters suggested in recent months, this project would create an alternative. It would design a training manual for crafting a community-based budget that would allow residents of municipalities to have more input on how local funds are dispersed. The reason for this manual? In the past, local residents have been largely excluded from the budget process because they are unaware of how these documents are assembled. However, this team aims to help them learn how they can work with government officials to redesign a budget that matches the community’s priorities. Through this process, research shows that residents can gain confidence in local government and they may be empowered to continue supporting their community.

Principal investigator: John Murphy, professor of sociology

  • COVID-19: Evaluating fault lines in the health of our communities and developing community-centered solutions

Current health data for historically low-income, underserved communities in Miami reveals substantial inequities across a wide number of health indicators—from  infant  mortality  and  cancer  incidence to  airborne diesel particulate matter. Through the School of Law’s Community Equity, Innovation, and Resource Lab, existing relationships with community organizations in west Coconut Grove reveal that public access to this data is challenging. Therefore, this project will collect new data about human and environmental health conditions in this community, as well as offer outreach and education about this information. The team will also investigate public and private health care service delivery and resource allocation practices and determine how these factors affect health outcomes for residents of the community. Then, team members will work closely with local stakeholders to assist their community in law and policy reform campaigns at local, state, and federal levels.

Principal investigator: Anthony Alfieri, professor in the University of Miami School of Law

  • Early childhood system integration to promote community resilience and equity for children of color

This project follows on the heels of research started by the IDEAS Consortium for Children, founded in 2018 through a previous U-LINK grant. The consortium is a cooperative between the University and local early childhood organizations—including The Children’s Trust, the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade/Monroe counties, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the Miami-Dade County Head Start/Early Head Start program—which aims to understand the most beneficial strategies to support children younger than age five. Recently, the group created an interactive mapping tool called the neighborhood risk index, which weighs children’s resilience by measuring their own neighborhood risks with kindergarten readiness skills. This allows the group to analyze early childhood data at the street level. Despite areas of risk in low-income neighborhoods like Little Havana and Little Haiti, many pockets of children in these communities fared well on the risk index. So, now researchers want to unpack what led to this resilience, seen as a key indicator of future childhood success. They will also apply a racial and equity lens to the data, so that they can share the gaps in support and resources with community leaders in Black neighborhoods to help future children get the support that they need.

Principal investigator: Rebecca Shearer, professor of psychology, with a focus on early childhood and social emotional health

  • Joint Academic Nurtureship for Underrepresented Students (JANUS): A Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) Initiative

Just 11 percent of college students in the United States are Black, and only 3.9 percent of these students hold bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Just 1 percent of those STEM degrees go to Black women. With those figures as a backdrop, this team—whose work will also be funded by the University’s Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute and Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center—aims to create a STEM mentorship and research internship program for Black University of Miami undergraduates, as well as local public high school students. As part of this program, team leaders hope to offer stipends to students that would offset the loss of part-time jobs, as well as remote delivery to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions. Faculty members who agree to participate will be exposed to educational modules that explore the history of anti-Black racism in the United States, and the effort will partner with existing University mentoring programs, including the School of Education and Human Development’s Inspire U Academy, which pairs University Hammond Scholars with students from historically Black high schools in Miami, and the First Star University of Miami Academy, a college preparatory program for youth impacted by the child welfare system.

Principal investigator: Ashutosh Agarwal, associate professor of biomedical engineering and associate director of the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute

  • Racism in America: Conversations beyond Black and white

This project aims to understand the roots of structural racism among immigrant populations in Miami and will do so by documenting conversations about anti-Black racism between first generation parents and their children. In particular, it will focus on anti-Black racism among Latin American, Caribbean, Asian, and African immigrants for the next two years through youth-centered engagement, research, and media production.

Principal investigator: Sanjeev Chatterjee, professor of cinema and interactive media

In addition, two teams that previously garnered U-LINK funding were reinvigorated by new social equity grants this year.

  • Facial Profiling: Defendant physical characteristics, machine learning analytics, and criminal justice disparities in Miami-Dade County

This project seeks to document the extent to which colorism shapes criminal justice outcomes and facial recognition technologies by analyzing the mugshots of 200,000 arrestees linked to court records in Miami-Dade County. In working with the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office, if the team finds that skin color discrimination in Miami courts exists, it could constitute a credible enough showing of discrimination to spur litigation. Also, since the Miami-Dade County Public Defender is committed to evidence-based methods for reducing disparities in the county’s criminal justice system, the team’s results could spur equal protection litigation surrounding colorism in courts or the use of facial recognition technology. In addition, the team hopes to encourage local police to adopt evidence-based guidelines for the use of facial recognition technology. 

Principal investigator: Nick Petersen, assistant professor in sociology, as well as a secondary appointment in the School of Law

  • Anti-Bias Training Across the Data-Life Cycle: Project data inclusion

Despite a growing awareness of the lack of representation for women and communities of color in large-scale data sets, no standard educational approach to address discriminatory bias exists across data science fields. This team aims to design and offer community-based, anti-bias training in order to raise awareness of these inequities. In addition, they will address implicit and explicit racial and intersectional bias during data collection by first focusing on public health information. This team hopes that its work will address the lack of inclusion and equity in the data life cycle, and through anti-bias training interventions, it will target students and professionals across disciplines. Ultimately, these students can become ambassadors to educate and engage in anti-bias efforts in their future professional contexts.

Principal investigator: Jennifer Kahn, professor of education, focusing on the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)

To learn more about U-LINK, or if you are interested in joining one of the teams, visit its website or contact the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Scholarship at 305-243-1660.