The Data Deleters: a bill proposed by Senators Lee and Rubio would wipe people of color off federal maps

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High-quality data is now a matter of life and death. We depend on these data to plan safe roads, regulate toxic chemicals, and track infectious diseases. In my work as a microbiologist, we’ve seen amazing advances in medical and environmental research by making large, standardized DNA sequencing datasets accessible to everyone.

The same applies to geographic data in the social sciences. Where racial disparities are occurring, high-quality datasets will help to uncover them. Where issues like housing availability are closer to equitable, analysis of Big Data can suggest what policies helped. These connections bind data science to civil rights, in areas from housing discrimination to environmental racism to voter suppression.

Many of us have spoken out against recent assaults on climate change data maintained by the EPA. Fundamental geographic databases crucial for policy analysis are now also under attack.

A stealth anti-science and anti-civil rights provision is embedded in proposed senate Bill S.103 “‘Local Zoning Decisions 5 Protection Act of 2017”, and its companion bill H.R. 482 in the house.  Section 3 of those bills would supersede all existing laws to ban all federal funding for using or maintaining geospatial databases that track racial disparities in our communities. It would also ban databases that track disparities in access to affordable housing. I confirmed that this language is still present as of 1/30/17.

The key provision, Section 3, is only one sentence long (You can read the official full text of the bills for yourself at the links above.) :

SEC. 3. PROHIBITION ON USE OF FEDERAL FUNDS.

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.

The provision is absurdly broad and intentionally vague. Using federal funds to do any research at all on racial discrimination could potentially violate it, if that research involves a ‘database’ that records ‘geospatial information’ – a low bar that most research studies would trip over.

We scientists like to hedge, to find nuance.  But this provision is quite simple. There is no rational, non-discriminatory basis for a blanket ban on studying inequality using federal databases. If you thought racial discrimination in housing were minimal, you’d want more data out in the open, not less. You’d want giant billboards up everywhere showing how fair our housing policy was. The only reason to place a blanket ban on researchers building and using geospatial databases of racial disparities is if you know discrimination is happening, and you want to cover it up.  

That is precisely what Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and 22 representatives from the house have done in this bill.

I’m sure that, when pressed, some might argue that state databases will take up some of the slack.  Perhaps, but that would still produce a situation worse than the status quo, in which we have both federal and state databases.  It would also make national analyses of racial disparities much harder. Data science benefits greatly from consistently annotated and easily accessible datasets.  The most likely effect of eliminating federal databases of racial inequality would be to have fewer data, and to make those data that are available  harder to access and compare.  This will limit the power of research studies, and potentially cast doubt on their results.

Discriminated against in housing?  Now they can claim there is ‘no scientific data’ to back it up.  Because they deleted it.

Trying to get a federal research grant to study racial disparities in zoning law? You won’t, because that study would require you to build a database, and now funds can’t be used for that purpose.

Fighting a chemical plant in your backyard? Good luck arguing that it’s placement was discriminatory if your expert witnesses don’t have the data on community racial disparities to build you a map.

This provision has no purpose other than to shield discrimination. Its effect is to literally wipe the concerns of people of color from Federal maps.

As scientists, we will safeguard key datasets from political interference. As citizens, we will resist cowardly attempts to shield discrimination and racism from the bright light of public scrutiny.  As decent human beings, we will never support legislation make it harder for people in our communities to drink clean water or find a place to live, no matter what the color of their skin.

The house bill is currently in the House Committee on Financial Services.  The senate bill is in the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs committee. Citizens from all over the country have expressed their shock and outrage over these bills on social media, calling for their rejection. Advocates and scientists from every state are now calling their representatives to demand action, and spreading the word online. A list of senators and representatives sponsoring this bill can be found below.  If your representatives are on this list, please call them and express your opposition.  If they are not, please call your representatives and make them aware that they should oppose this bill. If you live in Utah or Florida, I especially urge you to demand that Senators Lee and Rubio to withdraw this bill, and let them know that this betrayal of fundamental American values will not soon be forgotten.

Thanks everyone for your help and support.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank  Dr. Jan Marie Eberth, a professor at the UNC Arnold School and Deputy Director of the South Carolina Rural Health research center, who alerted me to this bill.

p.s. here are Senators and Representatives sponsoring or co-sponsoring the bill (see the official congress.gov page here).  If your representatives are on this list, please call them and express your opposition. If they are not, please call your representatives and make them aware that they should oppose this bill.

Senate:

Sponsor: Sen. Lee, Mike [R-UT] (Salt Lake City Office, Phone: 801-524-5933, Fax: 801-524-5730)

Co-sponsor: Sen. Rubio, Marco [R-FL]* (Phone: Miami office: (305) 418-8553; Orlando office (407) 254-2573; Tampa office: (813) 287-5035)

House:

Sponsor: Rep. Gosar, Paul A. [R-AZ-4] (Phone: Phone: (480) 882-2697)

Cosponsors: (as of 1/31/17. See here for current official cosponsors):

Rep. Biggs, Andy [R-AZ-5] 01/24/2017
Rep. Franks, Trent [R-AZ-8]* 01/12/2017
Rep. McClintock, Tom [R-CA-4]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Rohrabacher, Dana [R-CA-48]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Buck, Ken [R-CO-4]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Webster, Daniel [R-FL-11]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Yoho, Ted S. [R-FL-3]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Blum, Rod [R-IA-1]* 01/12/2017
Rep. King, Steve [R-IA-4]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Massie, Thomas [R-KY-4]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Smith, Jason [R-MO-8]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Joyce, David P. [R-OH-14] 01/20/2017
Rep. Duncan, Jeff [R-SC-3]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Blackburn, Marsha [R-TN-7]* 01/12/2017
Rep. DesJarlais, Scott [R-TN-4]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Duncan, John J., Jr. [R-TN-2]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Babin, Brian [R-TX-36]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Burgess, Michael C. [R-TX-26]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Poe, Ted [R-TX-2]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Sessions, Pete [R-TX-32]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Brat, Dave [R-VA-7]* 01/12/2017
Rep. Grothman, Glenn [R-WI-6]* 01/12/2017

 

Changelog:

2/3/17 Updated to fix a typo (I put 1/30/16 instead of 1/30/17).  Thanks to Greg Caporaso  for spotting the mistake.