Wrestling with Equity: Dr. Jamaal Green Returns to DCRP

By Lance Gloss, Editor-in-Chief

Many research projects in urban planning address status quo conditions in government. Jamaal Green, Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design, breathes new life into this format by focusing on the critical questions of who wins, and who loses, when governments choose business-as-usual.

Dr. Green returned to his alma mater of Carolina Planning to deliver a well-attended address, sponsored by CPJ and Angles, DCRP DEI, and DCRP’s Planning in Practice Speaker Series. He engaged the crowd with a tale of two projects he took on while working at the State of Oregon’s Office of Reporting, Research, Analytics and Implementation (ORRAI) in the Department of Human Services (DHS). A vibrant discussion ensued.

DHS’ Family Reunification Decision Support Tool

The first case dealt with a forward-thinking effort to revise DHS’ Family Reunification Decision Support Tool. DHS staff use this tool to make life-altering decisions about whether children enter state-supervised care or return to their families. Dr. Green and his colleagues recognized that the algorithm behind the Decision Support Tool was more likely to misclassify risk for Black and indigenous kids than for their white counterparts.

To address this disparity, ORRAI developed a “fairness correction score” to manage racial bias. This novel approach used a standardized method for error rate balancing. This adjusted the algorithmic result to ensure that misclassification risk was equal across racial groups, thereby eliminating the structural disparity and changing the lives of many children. The adjustment was recently phased out due to concerns over newer, similar adjustments in California and Pennsylvania that received negative attention. However, Dr. Green cites innovation as a serious step toward fairer governance.

Cannabis Dispensaries in Oregon and Washington

In the second case, Dr. Green shared findings on the spatial distribution of legal and gray market cannabis dispensaries in Oregon and Washington. By mapping these dispensaries and testing their prevalence against demographic indicators, Dr. Green showed that higher poverty, higher unemployment, and higher numbers of people of color correlated with cannabis sales locations.

This problem is multi-faceted in ways that suggest to Dr. Green a need to liberalize zoning regulations that pertain to cannabis sales. The confounding variable, he noted, was likely to be zoning. Because wealthier and whiter neighborhoods tend to have less commercial zoning, they end up with fewer dispensaries. This resulted in an unequal distribution of the social costs of cannabis sales.

Dr. Green said that dispensaries should be allowed to locate in more zones and under fewer restrictions to lessen the exposure differential. This would allow dispensaries to locate where their markets are; as there is evidence that marijuana use does not correspond with income or race—unlike the location of dispensaries—liberalizing the regulations should be enough to reduce the disparity. The question is whether the wealthy and the white also bear the social costs of cannabis sales.

The brilliance of Dr. Green’s lecture came in his comparison of the cases. On close examination, these two remedies for racial disparities are structural opposites. In the DHS case, an algorithm functions in a biased manner and must be normalized to reduce this bias. In the cannabis dispensary case, overregulation in the absence of a market failure causes biased outcomes. The remedy in that case was liberalization, not a targeted tightening of rules. In this way, the cases serve as a critical lesson for planners interested in fairness and equity. Similar goals cannot always be achieved with similar tools. Recognizing the details and the mechanisms at hand must precede intervention, lest a misguided move worsens the problem.

As Measured Against…

The professor also pointed to another subtext that spans both cases. In researching these topics, he found what many of us in the planning profession encounter: the use of whiteness as what Dr. Green called the “ur-reference.” That is, studies of this kind tend to measure problems for people of color relative to a normative baseline associated with conditions for white people. This results in the recurrent “non-white” category.

In these cases, Dr. Green urged a different view, in which whiteness is seen as the intervention on the landscape. The DHS algorithm may have been structurally biased to promote the safety of white children when the true norm is miscalculated risk. Dispensary zoning may have been crafted (intentionally or not) to protect white neighborhoods when the true norm is market-driven location choices. While by no means a definitive treatise on racial reference points, Dr. Green left the many students and faculty in attendance with a provocative reframing. This degree of innovative thinking certainly explains his rapid rise to prominence since graduating from DCRP. We are grateful to the professor for sharing his time and expertise.

Lance is a second-generation urban planner with a passion for economic development strategies that center natural resource conservation and community uplift. He served as Managing Editor of the Urban Journal at Brown University, Section Editor at the College Hill Independent, and Senior Planner for the City of Grand Junction. Hailing from sunny Colorado, he earned his BA in Urban Studies at Brown and will earn his Master in City and Regional Planning at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2023. Outside of work, he can be found on his bicycle, in the woods, or on the rugby pitch.

Edited by Jo Kwon

Featured Image by Jo Kwon