Dr. Luana Ozemela, a researcher advising QF’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University on gender and public policy, on how data can provide insight into the way misguided beliefs about people continue to take hold.
Race and gender shaped my thinking profoundly from a fairly young age. I grew up in the heart of the struggle that the black Brazilian community face. Having gone through a mostly white school of economics in the European-centric Brazilian south, I often found myself tuning my activism down in order to be accepted, or to avoid what some would consider as being too controversial. I eventually travelled abroad to develop the art of using econometric critique to dissolve racial and gender blindness more effectively.
I developed the skill of how to use data to build evidence-based diagnostics to understand and address social problems. Today, I consider the use of data and models in everything that I do –
data that helps us uncover hidden problems and their root causes; and models that make predictions and better devise solutions for those problems.
During my career in international development, I refined this skill not only by employing sophisticated methods such as behavioral science and Randomized Control Trials (RCT), but also by advising governments on the most cost-effective solutions to their problems.
Now I am based in the Gulf and run a global company that is focused on using data to tackle structural policy problems such as racial and gender discrimination, social equity and inclusion, and public service design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
One of the observations that caught my attention after the killing of George Floyd was how silent the private sector and institutions in the Gulf were, while at the same time we heard commitments and pledges against racism and discrimination all over the world. I believe part of that is due to a belief that racism is perhaps more of a American problem than a Gulf problem. I partially blame this perception on the US mass media, which has turned racism into an export commodity reinforcing stereotypical roles of African Americans around the globe. However, this perception is also partially due to a lack of data and informed dialogue on race relations in the Arab world.
These prejudices may seem harmless when confined to your mind, but evidence shows that holding erroneous judgements about people will lead you to act on those beliefs or discriminate at some point in your life
We must remember that while slavery in the Americas lasted about 400 years, in the Arab world it was practiced for at least 1,300 years. Many racial groups were enslaved by the latter, but generally sub-Saharan Africans were assigned the lowest status. Such a long history of negative treatment of African descendants, no matter how relatively benign compared to slavery in the Americas, left many stereotypes and prejudices among Arabs.
So, to what extent do stereotypes and overt racial bias exist within society and institutions? Does race or ethnicity influence people’s decisions? Scholars need to address this subject with attention in the Arab region.
During the recent virtual event entitled Racism and Discrimination in the Gulf, hosted by Hamad Bin Khalifa University [a member of Qatar Foundation], I began the conversation by reminding the audience about biases we all have and need to first of all accept we have. Harvard University has, for many years, made available implicit tests to show people how biases about gender, race, religion and sexuality affect us all. Everyone I know who took the test was extremely disappointed with their results, as we all tend to think we do not have prejudices.
Prejudices are essentially unwarranted discounts of the true worth of a group of people; of their beauty, their intelligence or their character. These prejudices may seem harmless when confined to your mind, but evidence shows that holding erroneous judgements about people will lead you to act on those beliefs or discriminate at some point in your life.
Racial discrimination is very costly to societies. Costly because it limits educational and economic opportunities for parts of the population and has negative consequences on aggregate savings and investment on the long run. McKinsey estimates that systematic racial economic differences may reduce the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by up to six per cent. That represents more than six times the entire GDP of Qatar.
Data helps us to understand the extent to which individuals and institutions hold on to incorrect beliefs about people, resulting in disproportionate negative effects on some groups and not others
However, data helps us to understand the extent to which individuals and institutions hold on to incorrect beliefs about people, resulting in disproportionate negative effects on some groups and not others.
What I have advised governments in Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama, Chile, and Trinidad, among others, is simply to stop being like the ostrich. The ostrich buries its head in the ground, leaving its whole body exposed. Avoiding collecting race data will not make racism or biases disappear.
The first strategic step is to collect and analyze data. The European Union recently held a survey about being black in Europe, and what it showed is that racism is pervasive there too. It indicated that 63 percent of the minority population in Finland experience racism; 52 percent in Luxembourg; 51 percent in Ireland; and 48 percent in Denmark and Italy, to mention a few. Data has elevated the topic and stirred discussions on solutions to tackle racism in Europe.
Data alone will not solve all our problems, but without it there is nothing to guide leaders who are willing to address these challenges. Every person, business and government must decide for themselves whether they are ready to face it, and are fully committed
This means we need to understand the problem, starting by collecting data about the existing biases in society. In Brazil, it was only after the country started collecting data on the racial composition of job-seekers that it identified institutional discrimination and racial bias by job-seekers’ advisors. In Colombia, it was only after collecting data on the race of women seeking shelter and help amid violence cases that the government realized that culturally sensitive services were lacking in predominantly black communities. For governments to deter racism in their institutions, they first need to understand its mechanisms.
There are policies that can remedy incorrect beliefs and the discomfort the topic brings. There are policies to remedy unfair treatment in institutions and address institutional racism. But critically, data needs to be collected, and research needs to be developed.
Data alone will not solve all our problems, but without it there is nothing to guide leaders who are willing to address these challenges. Every person, business and government must decide for themselves whether they are ready to face it, and are fully committed. The first step is to recognize that we all have very dangerous biases; the second is to give it worthy attention, in society, policy and in scholarship.
Qatar has been ahead of its time and its peers in the Gulf on many fronts. This will be another major opportunity to show how to tackle prejudice, racism, and discrimination in the context of the Gulf.