When Yeshimabeit Milner was in sixth grade in Brandon, Florida she was suspended for three days after talking back to the teacher in a technology class. Milner was devastated — but the episode also led to an epiphany. A few years later, she began to collect data on suspensions in a neighbouring school and found that black children like her were four times more likely to be suspended than white children. This was the beginning of her life as a data activist.
Milner, now 30, leads an organisation called Data for Black Lives. A movement, she would call it, of scientists and activists working to make data a tool for social change. She is part of a long tradition, one that goes back 120 years to when the African-American sociologist WEB Du Bois used an arresting set of data visualisations to challenge the racist narrative of the time. “Du Bois is exactly the baton that we’ve taken up and that we’re running with,” says Milner.
To understand the historical roots of black data activism, we have to return to October 1899. Back then, Thomas Calloway, a clerk in the War Department, wrote to the educator Booker T Washington about his pitch for an “American Negro Exhibit” at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was right in the middle of the scramble for Africa and Europeans had developed a morbid fascination with the people they were trying to subjugate.
“Europeans think us a mass of rapists, ready to attack every white woman exposed, and a drug in civilized society,” Calloway wrote. “How shall we answer these slanders?” The plan was to use data, among other things, to set the record straight. The proposal was accepted and Calloway secured funding from Congress and enlisted the brightest minds of his generation. Among them was Du Bois, a man who went on to become a figure of towering significance in American politics and letters.
Calloway and Du Bois went way back. Formerly classmates at Fisk University, the pair spent a summer waiting tables together at a resort in Minnesota so that Du Bois could pay for his postgraduate degree. He went on to become the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University and by 1900 was garnering a reputation as a leading sociologist. His study “The Philadelphia Negro”, published in 1899, was “a credit to American scholarship . . . and a valuable addition to the world’s stock of knowledge”, according to the Yale Review.
To Calloway, the Paris exhibition offered a unique venue to sway the global elite to acknowledge “the possibilities of the Negro” and to influence cultural change in the US from an international platform.
It is hard to overstate the importance of international fairs at the time. They were a platform to bolster the prestige of nations. In Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards, Robert Rydell writes that fairs had become “a vehicle that, perhaps next to the church, had the greatest capacity to influence a mass audience”.
They had also become places where white supremacists could shape representations of race and culture. One example was Francis Galton’s lab at the International Health Exposition in London in 1884. Galton was one of social Darwinism’s early champions: he had coined the term eugenics in 1883. At the fair, he charged a fee to measure visitors’ features and assess their evolutionary credentials.
For the Paris World Fair, Du Bois and a team of Atlanta University students and alumni designed and drew by hand more than 60 bold data portraits. A first set used Georgia as a case study to illustrate the progress made by African Americans since the Civil War. A second set showed how “the descendants of former African slaves now in residence in the United States of America” had become lawyers, doctors, inventors and musicians. For the first time, the growth of literacy and employment rates, the value of assets and land owned by African Americans and their growing consumer power were there for everyone to see.
At the 1900 World Fair, the “Exhibit of American Negroes” took up a prominent spot in the Palace of Social Economy. “As soon as they entered the building, visitors were inundated by examples of black excellence,” says Whitney Battle-Baptiste, director of the WEB Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-author of WEB Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America.
As well as using the US census and reports compiled by Atlanta University, Du Bois drew data from government reports he had put together himself for groups such as the US Bureau of Labor. “For me, what was extraordinary about Du Bois’s data portraits is that he obtained access to the data,” says Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, a book about the societal impact of data. “Most people who have the data are in power. And most people who are powerless do not have data.”
To Battle-Baptiste, Du Bois’s graphics proved that statistics are not impartial. While numbers derived from applied mathematics are neutral, data is different because it originates from the real world and real people, some of whom may have vested interests or unconscious biases. “White supremacy then and now is so embedded in our language, in our information and our data that when you have black scientists and other folks of colour engaging in this, the outcome is very different,” she says.
While data can play a part in breaking racial boundaries, history has shown it can also reinforce them. Some 120 years after the Paris exhibition, data has developed and mutated, aided by technology. It is now part of all our lives from very early on — and particularly so for young African Americans.
The algorithms that drive predictive policing and facial recognition, for example, can learn to replicate and exacerbate patterns of unconscious bias that might have been in the original data collection. Coupled with other algorithms that evaluate mortgage applications and derive credit scores, as well as redlining — denying loans to low-income residents of predominantly black neighbourhoods — “a whole slew of technologies have been weaponised against black communities for so long”, says Milner.
In 2018, the imprisonment rate for black men was 5.8 times that of their white counterparts. “We really root ourselves in abolition as a black radical tradition,” she says. “The contemporary movement to abolish prisons is leading on from the original revolutionary movement in this country: the fight to abolish slavery.” As Du Bois put it in Black Reconstruction in America: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
“We can’t write an algorithm that’s going to solve racism,” Milner says. “So we asked ourselves what it would mean to bring together software engineers, data scientists, activists of all races and really think about how we can change the cast of characters around these technological innovations.”
Changing the cast of characters was what made Du Bois’s data portraits so subversive and it was at the heart of Calloway’s intention of responding to “the slanders”. If those working on data collection are solely white or solely male this can result in serious gaps in knowledge. Conversely, recruiting a diverse team of researchers can revolutionise the process. “Du Bois knew that data collection was not serving black communities,” says Milner.
To O’Neil the most stark example of this today is the lack of federally collected data on police killings by race. The New York Times recently had to sue the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US health protection agency, to get the race breakdown of who was affected by Covid-19 — a disease that has had a disproportionate effect on people of colour.
It is difficult to prove discrimination without the data to show it — and sometimes the government actively suppresses data collection. In the first year of the Trump administration, House Republicans passed a bill that stopped the use of federal money to measure the racial and gender pay gaps.
“Data is not really neutral. In fact, it’s the opposite of neutral. It’s dynamic and explosive. And it is exposing, it exposes facts that we might not want to look at. That’s why you’re seeing so much reluctance to have this information collected,” says O’Neil.
To fill in the gaps, Data for Black Lives has started a Covid-19 tracker project with the aim of visualising the impact of the pandemic on black communities. Milner envisages a public data trust with an elected governing board who would steward the data for the benefit of communities of colour.
Du Bois lived a long life, going on to become co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was born a few years after slavery was abolished and died one day before the March on Washington in 1963. After the “Exhibit of American Negroes” — which won a number of awards in Europe — he never worked on anything like those infographics again.
Once back in the US, the data portraits were deposited in the Library of Congress and Du Bois lost access to them, not for lack of trying. His intention was to tour them across the US. Tragically, most of his contemporaries in his home country were never able to see this work. Yet the data portraits have remained imprinted in the public consciousness and regularly make an appearance in contemporary work.
In this issue, we have updated three of those images. When compared with the originals, they offer insight into the seismic changes in the lives of African Americans over the past century, including the shift from largely rural to largely urban living and the movement in population distribution across the US. One of Du Bois’s most famous images was the changing proportion of freemen and slaves among black Americans over time. Were he alive today, he might have looked at the incarceration rates among different races.
What Milner calls the “datafication of society” is going on all around us. But the fight to access data on racial inequality and ensure that the information we do collect represents all people continues. Du Bois’s heirs still need to carry the baton.
Federica Cocco is a statistics journalist at the FT. Additional reporting by Alan Smith
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