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Can We Correct For Past Traumas If the Data is Missing?

Reflecting on what data we have 100 years after the Tulsa Massacre.

Authors: Cristina Diaz-Borda, Editorial Manager

The night of May 31 marks the 100 year anniversary of the Tulsa race riot (also known as the Greenwood Massacre or the Black Wall Street Massacre), when a mob of white residents descended on the Greenwood District of Tulsa, burning, looting, and destroying thousands of Black-owned houses and businesses. The 1921 attack is considered “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

My hope was to write a piece looking at the past, and the long term effects the massacre had on Black wealth in Tulsa, informed by property ownership, financial assets, and other indicators of economic success. Understanding the effects of this event would help us understand how Black people have been systematically disadvantaged. As generational wealth is exponential, my hope was to shed light on how reparative justice could play a part in making this community whole. To repair the wounds of our past, we should know just how deep they are. Instead, what I discovered is that much of the necessary data is nonexistent, or at best hiding in an archive somewhere, undigitized, and inaccessible via internet research.

Even exactly how many people died that night in Tulsa is an estimate, and to this day, the location of the mass graves that have acted as the final resting place for the approximately 300 dead is a mystery. After initially disappearing from the collective narrative, much has been written in recent years, however, the event has largely been left out of history classes, even in Oklahoma, where the incident was only added to school curriculums last year. A 2015 report found that American schools devote only 8% of history classroom time to Black History of any kind. By contrast, German students learn about the Holocaust in detail, visiting sites significant to the darkest period in history, and are forced to reckon with the possibility that in another era, they too could have been a part of the horror and injustice of their country’s recent past.

Finding this data was a tall ask. In the U.S., the National Archives and Records Administration was only formed in 1934, more than 10 years after the Tulsa Massacre. What’s more, there’s a gaping hole in data ranging from the years after the massacre to the 1940s, and population census data did not become available until 1960. Even today, we don’t have any racial data on commercial real estate ownership, and sometimes even the data we do have from the government can be misleading, if not outright wrong — as was the case of how the USDA distorted data to conceal decades of discrimination against Black farmers.

That’s not to say there isn’t partial data. We know that 1,256 houses were burned; 215 others were looted but not torched, and roughly 70 businesses were destroyed. By 1923, the Greenwood commercial district was well on the way to being rebuilt and that starting in the 1950s, desegregation had a significant effect on the economic decline of the neighborhood. Though we know that an estimated $1,470,711 was incurred in damage — equal to about $20 million today, we don’t have the data to tell the full story that connects the dots between those losses and the residential property owned today.

When data is missing we can’t tell complete stories. We can make assumptions but we cannot definitively draw conclusions. In the case of Tulsa, we know that the massacre was one of the greatest Black wealth stripping singular events of the 20th Century. We know that Greenwood District still exists today, that Tulsa remains deeply segregated, and that the neighborhood never recovered. However, we cannot state that the former definitively caused the latter — that is we don’t have the data to connect A to B. We likely never will, as the property ownership was affected by both Jim Crow laws, redlining, and later desegregation which meant that Black business owners and would-be home owners were no longer restricted to one neighborhood in Tulsa.

In the horrifying chance that something like what happened in Tulsa happened today, we would hope that there would be a full reckoning and accounting, in a way that did not happen in the past. However, there are still insidious ways that missing data may play into our inability to paint a full picture of racial inequities. Take reparations for slavery, which are yet another example where missing data is problematic for reparative justice. One of the arguments against reparations is that a lack of records makes it impossible for most African Americans to trace their lineage earlier than the Civil War, so how could they prove they descended from enslaved people? Even today, racial data is often missing, such as in Covid-19 studiesvaccination rollouts, as well as the government-provided data on PPP loans, which clouds our ability to assess if necessary measures truly helped the most hard-hit communities.

We may never know the full implications of what happened in Tulsa, but organizations like the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial, Oklahoma Historical Society, Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, the New York Times, and Human Rights Watch have all helped us piece together what data we have. In the past 100 years, neither victims of this heinous event nor their descendants have ever received compensation via court order or legislation — which is the focus of a pending lawsuit we can only hope succeeds. While we don’t have all the data we’d want to connect the harm done in the past 100 years, the existing data more than demonstrates the losses experienced by the residents of 1921 Greenwood.

Moving forward, we need to make changes in our intentionality with demographic data collection to ensure that we’ll always have a complete picture of racial disparity. As long as racism exists, we need to account for race and ethnicity, just as we would with age, sex, orientation, and marital status. How else can we account for the different world people of color experience, and correct for the injustices they face?

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