Racism by numbers

“Data is a dispassionate way to dismiss notions of a post-racial society or ugly stereotypes about poverty and crime.”

The past few years have been a period of reflection in American journalism, specifically regarding watershed moments in our country’s complicated racial past.

errin-whackWe have marked the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery. We reached the 60th anniversaries of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, the murder of Emmett Till, and the arrest of Rosa Parks, which launched the Montgomery bus boycott. We also celebrated the 50th anniversaries of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “Bloody Sunday,” and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

But the past has also been prologue, as news headlines have been dominated by the legacy of American racism, from continued unfair housing practices to racial bias in policing. Some Americans are pining for a bygone era in our country that includes a time when some of our citizens were denied full freedom based on their race, gender, or sexual preference.

Much of the coverage of the lasting effect of these issues has been bolstered by data, which technology has made more abundant and available than ever. Coupled with history as context, as more reporters discover data to back up long-held ideas about disparities in communities and institutions across America, they’ll be able to get beyond feelings and emotions to prove — or disprove — whether and how systemic racism is part of the equation.

Data is a dispassionate way to dismiss notions of a post-racial society or ugly stereotypes about poverty and crime. A great starting point is the federal government, which keeps (and regularly issues reports on) statistics for a variety of topics, from housing, to incarceration, to education, to labor rates. Similar data is available on the county and city level. Even poll data from various sources can often point to issues of race that can be supported by hard numbers.

Such stories made it possible to explain the unshakable feeling held by many African Americans in communities across the country that they weren’t being treated fairly by police departments and court systems paid to serve all of its citizens equally, or to quantify the unease and dissatisfaction of black students attending predominantly white institutions who are few in number and experience circumstances that make it difficult to stay in school and earn their degrees. Numbers get us beyond the curious observation that college football is dominated by black players, but has woefully few black coaches.

Add to the already intimidating topic of race the seemingly overwhelming task of data journalism, and such stories can seem daunting. But together, they make a compelling combination that also has the potential to be incredibly powerful. When racism is presented as a matter of fact, it is harder to dismiss as a matter of opinion.

Errin Haines Whack covers urban affairs for The Associated Press.