Google Traffic Shows How Racist Massachusetts Is (Or Isn’t)

Researchers mapped search data for racist language. Eastern Massachusetts performed well.

Congrats, Massachusetts. According to Google search data, you’re less racist than average.

How does Google know such a thing? Don’t be naive—Google knows you’re thinking about buying those shoes you saw last week. But, fine, how does it know about something as personal and complex as the racism that might lie deep within your heart? Well, it comes thanks to a study by data scientists recently published by the journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers tracked Google searches for the N-word and mapped them. It’s a tricky methodology, but it works, in theory, because, while most people will respond to a survey question by saying they aren’t racist, their more frank opinions emerge online. (We see you, anonymous comments!)

People tend to search Google when alone, and their searches aren’t published anywhere. Of course, some people without racist attitudes might well search for the N-word. (Hey, maybe you’re writing a paper on Huckleberry Finn.) But the paper’s authors argued that over years and millions of searches, essentially, the racism rises to the top. They then used the data to show that an area’s volume of racist Google searches correlated with the mortality rate of African-Americans in that region. Racist attitudes go hand in hand with shorter lifespans for minority Americans.

Given the importance of the outcome…how’d our region stack up? According to a map published alongside the study, eastern Massachusetts’s search volume for the N-word is way below average. That’s true for northern New England as well. Searches for the N-word in central Massachusetts and Connecticut rank just slightly less than average. Rhode Island and the westernmost part of Massachusetts, unhappily, have search volumes way above average. Nationwide, it’s interesting to see that the highest volume of searches weren’t focused only in the deep south, but instead clustered around the Appalachians as they moved north and in Ohio. Things seem to get better as one moves west.

Use of the N-word is, of course, just one measure of racism. Culturally, you can see a world in which we’ve mostly eradicated this kind of language even as our biases persist in other forms. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz argues in his paper, though, that Google searches are good predictors of other kinds of social science phenomena. Searches for the word “God” tend to correlate with a region’s belief in God. The data also aligned with other measures of racism. (The results look like they line up pretty closely with a similar study that mapped the use of racial slurs in tweets.) Not all racists search Google for the N-word. And not all people who search Google for the N-word are racist. But those searches appear to serve as a useful measure of racism expressed in other forms. And by that measure, eastern Massachusetts is looking better than our countrymen.