Chinyere Agbai is a PhD student in Sociology at Brown University. She is a part of the Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2017.
Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are.
My name is Chinyere Agbai, and I am a fourth year PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Brown University. I research how the market for housing reproduces inequalities in race and health. More broadly, I am interested in urban inequality, the racial wealth gap, the welfare state, and the social determinants of health. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and earned a BA in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania. Before arriving at Brown, I worked in public affairs in Washington, D.C.
What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?
I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city infamous for one of the most destructive race massacres in the country. I attended church and school in Greenwood, the formerly prosperous black neighborhood also known as Black Wall Street, which was destroyed by white mobs during the massacre in 1921. Because I grew up in this context, the legacy of the race massacre was difficult to escape. Although there were efforts to rebuild after the massive loss of life and destruction of wealth that occurred, the neighborhood never returned to its former glory. In the past few years, Greenwood has begun exhibiting the hallmarks of gentrification, with the construction of a new minor league baseball field and high-end apartments and restaurants. Witnessing the transformation of this community is one important factor that initially sparked my interest in the role of the neighborhood in reproducing racial inequalities and urban inequality more generally.
Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about?
Currently, I am working on a paper that looks at how the duration of exposure to gentrification is linked to the health of longtime residents in these neighborhoods. I am excited about this work because there is very little research on it, but I think there are good reasons to expect that health and gentrification might be linked in interesting and potentially conflictual ways.
For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?
Many people don’t realize the massive role that the federal government has played in subsidizing the homes of white Americans. For instance, policies like the GI Bill of 1944 heavily insured mortgages for almost exclusively white soldiers returning from World War II, allowing them to purchase homes in suburban neighborhoods. Black veterans, on the other hand, were denied the same level of subsidization. I would argue that few people who amassed significant wealth as a result of this program think of their families as having received a government “handout.” This is just one of many examples of policies that have historically, and continue to, contribute to the racial wealth gap.
Who is a researcher you admire and why?
I admire so many scholars, but it was the book American Apartheid by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton that first gave me the vocabulary to discuss the role of housing in producing and reproducing racial inequality in this country. The book details the role of racism at the individual and organizational levels in making black Americans the most residentially segregated group. The book also makes clear how residential segregation allows for continued discrimination against black people while broadly insulating whites from its effects.
How has being an HPRS Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral candidate?
Being an HPRS Scholar has helped me enormously during my PhD work. First, this program has provided me practical skills that will facilitate my ability to disseminate my research findings beyond the confines of academic journals. In the program, we have received dissemination training ranging from writing op-eds, to producing podcasts, to communicating with policymakers. This training will prove invaluable going forward, as I seek to make my research legible to the general public. Second, the other scholars in the program are phenomenal. They are the perfect combination of easygoing and serious about their research. The other members of HPRS have helped me to think about how my research is mutually informed by other disciplinary perspectives. Being a member of the HPRS network facilitates my ability to work with other scholars in the program to collectively produce a trans-disciplinary body of research that can then be deployed to advocate for policies that will contribute to a more just society.
In the RWJF HPRS program, we have worked with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be?
The mortgage-interest deduction is a large subsidy that allows homeowners in America to deduct mortgage interest on their first and second homes in their taxes. It costs the federal government more than $130 billion per year. This deduction provides the largest subsidies to those who have the most expensive mortgages. As a result, the mortgage-interest deduction disproportionately benefits the rich, because those who can afford higher mortgages earn greater incomes. Rethinking and reforming the mortgage-interest deduction would free up billions of dollars that could then be invested in affordable housing.
Ok, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you want to have with you?
First, I would bring an iPhone powered by solar energy with a perfect connection to the internet and GPS. This would allow me to signal for help, update my Instagram (haha), and provide access to important survival guides on where to find potable water and direct me to edible plants. Next, I would bring a bible to facilitate my prayers for rescue. The bible is also thousands of pages, so it would entertain me for long periods of time. Finally, I would bring a large, sturdy, windproof and waterproof tent.