Uncategorized

Race and the city: An exclusive interview with Nate Silver

NateSilver_2009_interview.jpg

In his TEDTalk, blogger and statistics whiz Nate Silver explained how race may have affected the 2008 election. In this interview with the TEDBlog he further explores the relationships between urban spaces, race and President Obama.

Here’s an excerpt:

I see Obama as being our first urban president in a long time. His racial heritage is mixed, he was raised by a single mother, he’s lived in several places, from Indonesia to Hawaii to the Midwest. For many people living in our cities, especially in their 20s and 30s, this is normal. I think urban-ness is the real factor.

Read the full interview, after the jump >>What did you think of your TEDTalk? Have you watched it yet?

Actually, no. I haven’t watched it because I just hate watching myself, but I’ve heard the video quality is excellent. So, thanks.

What about actually being and speaking at TED? What did you think of that?

I was definitely flattered to be there. I had friends who said, “If you’re lucky, you’ll get invited.” It was really cool to be surrounded by bright people doing things in very different walks of life. It’s not often that you get to be around that many different types of people, left and right-brained, young and old, and all very bright.

I don’t get intimidated easily, but this was a fairly intimidating caliber of people as well as the presentations themselves. Also, I went on the last day and there were advantages and disadvantages to that. It gave me more time to prepare, but as the time for my talk approached I began to have this impending sense of doom. And of course, as I said, watching the other presentations was most intimidating.

Have you seen the comments on your talk, either on TED.com or on the TED facebook page?

No, not yet. I hope they’re good. What are they?

Well, there are definitely a lot of positive comments, but there are also some strong reactions on the topic of race, in general. Did you expect strong reactions?

Well, I think anytime I’m discussing politics in general, I expect strong reactions. And, when you include race with politics — definitely.

But everything had to be discussed in a nine minute presentation, and I was trying to present these very complex issues in a way that does them justice, but also knowing that I could not dot every i and cross every t. People sometimes assume that because I haven’t emphasized something, I haven’t thought if it. If they want more detailed discussions, they should definitely read my blog.

In your talk, you identified two factors with strong predictive relationships to racism, education and neighborhoods, but you didn’t talk much about the role of education. Could you speak to that now?

In some ways, it seems self-evident that racism is in part born out of ignorance, and a sound liberal education should make you familiar with others who are different. Even the mere act of going to college means you interact with people from different parts of the state and country. College is the most artificially diverse environment available to us. My experience was that interacting with my classmates was the most important part of my undergraduate experience.

With respect to the points you made about neighborhoods, some of the commenters have asked about correlation and causation, specifically whether racism is caused by living in a monoracial neighborhood, or whether more racist people move to monoracial neighborhoods. What do you think about that?

I think the arrows point both ways. It’s hard to draw causalities. There’s a book by Bill Bishop, called “The Big Sort,” that shows that people have become more likely to choose their neighborhood on ideological grounds. If you have a preference to be surrounded by only white people, you can be. It’s hard to separate out the causalities.

When you collected and analyzed this data, and realized that there were substantial proportions of people whose votes were influenced by race, did you find this at all disheartening?

Well, first of all, I think it was evident throughout the 2008 campaign that race was playing a part. The media attempted not to make too much of it, but it was there.

But, I don’t know how you can be too disheartened when it was only 40 years ago that everyone in the country was truly given the right to participate, under the Civil Rights Act — so that’s within one generation. I don’t know how we can be disheartened when today we can elect a black President. However, we have to be careful as some people have gone too far in the opposite direction because Obama won, and have become complacent.

Interestingly, among the states with more racially biased voting, the states where Obama campaigned were less biased. I think this is because of familiarity — because of his visibility, Obama became a virtual neighbor. It will be interesting to see what happens in 2012, to see how many people are still this way. He will be very familiar after four years as President.

I found your theory on the cul de sac design of suburbs encouraging racism very interesting. How did you come up with this idea?

I’m just a big fan of urban spaces. I lived in Chicago for years, and then just a few weeks ago I moved to Brooklyn. Personally, I find it more interesting to interact with the people in my neighborhood. But I’m certainly not an urban planner or an urban designer.

One thing that I didn’t have a chance to discuss during the talk was how well Obama performed in urban areas, especially among urban white voters. The fact that he’s from a major city is very unusual.

I see Obama as being our first urban president in a long time. His racial heritage is mixed, he was raised by a single mother, he’s lived in several places, from Indonesia to Hawaii to the Midwest. For many people living in our cities, especially in their 20s and 30s, this is normal. I think urban-ness is the real factor.

If you had a little more time for your TEDTalk, is there something else you would have liked to say?

In a nine-minute presentation, you’re trying to give a tasting menu, to give somewhat of an overview instead of focusing on one specific point. I found a curve and put it together and a lot of the numbers had to be overlooked. I would encourage people to visit my website for more detail.