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Searching for insights into racism in light of Google data study

The first time Shaquille Parker encountered a racist remark, he was too young to understand what had happened. Parker, who is black, had bumped into a woman in a store and she unfurled a racial slur. His mother explained what had happened.

The second time, about three years ago, Parker was watching a group of kids play football on the West Side. One tackled another. Racial slurs erupted.

So Parker, 20, knows that racism exists. But he doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it, and he just can’t fathom why anyone would sit around Googling the N-word – a term so repugnant that we don’t even spell it out.

“It’s the same as searching other racial terms,” Parker said as he sat down for lunch with a group of his friends last week. “It’s abnormal.”

Apparently people do – lots of people. And – sadly, according to a recent study – a lot of people do in Western New York.

A study published last month that examined the public health effects of racial discrimination used data from Google searches of the N-word to determine which areas of the country exhibited the most racism.

The notion that you can ferret out racist attitudes through Google is a few years old. Researcher Seth Stephens-Davidowitz developed the idea that you could bypass the difficulty of identifying racism by looking at data of what people search for on Google when they’re not worried about breaking taboos.

The more searches for the N-word, the more racist he deemed an area. (He excluded versions of the word often featured in rap lyrics The traditional spelling of the word, he found, was often used in searches to find jokes about African-Americans.)

The result was a map of regions across the country with the highest racially charged search rates, and Western New York showed up bright red for its high number of racist searches.

The map caught the attention of Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham, who detailed the latest study’s findings under the headline “The most racist places in America, according to Google.” Not the kind of title you want to win for your region.

Armed with the report, I met up with Parker and his friends last week in the student lounge at Erie Community College. I wanted to know whether a group of 20-somethings – young people who have come of age in what some thought was a “post-racial America” – had experienced the racism that the study sought to identify.

They were young, upbeat and racially diverse. Almost all of them had witnessed a racist remark. But they didn’t put a lot of stock in a study that used Google searches as an indicator of a region’s attitudes.

What did concern them was what they viewed as a root cause of racism – segregated neighborhoods that split people not just by race, but by income and other factors. And they had little tolerance for what they viewed as outdated racial attitudes.

“This is a new time. Things are different,” said Kaitlyn DeJesus, 19, of Buffalo. “People have to learn how to adapt and become different people.”

The thing about racism is, it tends to be insidious. People don’t admit or may not even recognize their own racial biases. It shapes attitudes and behaviors in ways we don’t always see. Identifying the problem – no matter how ugly the map makes us look – is a step toward dealing with it. That might just mean a better future for Parker and his friends.