How Racist is Massachusetts Compared to the Rest of America?

Racism is bad, but its link to the all-black mortality rate is even worse.

A map of racism in areas of the United States.
A map of racism in areas of the United States. –PLOS ONE

While Boston has a reputation for harboring racist tendencies, a new study claims that the city isn’t actually that bad compared to the rest of the country. But Western Massachusetts has a problem.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, sought to determine what areas of the United States are the most racist. The researchers divided the U.S. up into 196 different areas and tracked how often inhabitants in each one searched for the N-word on Google.

Searches containing the N-word don’t always mean that the searcher is racist, but if you compile enough data over enough years, it’s actually pretty representative of people’s attitudes.

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While most of us wouldn’t admit it if we’re racist, our search history betrays us. Data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wrote about this methodology in The New York Times:

The conditions under which people use Google — online, most likely alone, not participating in an official survey — are ideal for capturing what they are really thinking and feeling. You may have typed things into Google that you would hesitate to admit in polite company. I certainly have. The majority of Americans have as well: we Google the word “porn’’ more often than the word “weather.’’ And many Americans use Google to find racially charged material.

Using this method, researchers found that the rural Northeast (Western Massachusetts falls into this category) and the South are the most racist areas of the United States.

But the most troubling thing the study found is that in area “characterized by a one standard deviation greater proportion of racist Google searches,’’ there was an 8.2 percent increase in the all-cause mortality rate among blacks. This percentage amounts to over 30,000 deaths among blacks across America.

So it turns out that the old saying was wrong. In addition to sticks and stones, words can do a lot of damage.

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