What We Cannot Learn from Data

In the context of George Floyd’s horrific murder, I’m realizing how little I understand and how little I understood.  As our country experiences cyclical repetition, I’m learning the importance of being antiracist. I’m also learning the immeasurable value of listening, of education, of reading, and of learning. And I’m understanding that I’ll never fully understand what it means to be Black in America.

Can history breed understanding? How about data, statistics, quotes and memes?  Maybe so. It’s an approach I’ve been trying.  Encouraged by a wealth of music, literature, and documentaries, I proudly hoist my accolades up in argument.  I am well-read and, by God, you’re going to know I know my shit.  I’m armed with mass incarceration data from “The New Jim Crow.”  I can explain the facts about drug criminalization from the documentary “13th.”  I can reflect on “Nobody,” where Marc Lamont Hill uses the backdrop of the questionable Stand Your Ground laws that exonerated Trayvon Martin’s killer.

But as I pursue education and awareness, I’m also plagued by a competitiveness, a determination not just to make my point, but to fight those with opposing philosophies.  And statistics headline many arguments and statements, in the online and public forum. It’s nearly impossible to go on the web without reading some cringeworthy opinions, many of which are backed by data.  For example, one white blogger questioned systemic oppression, saying he knows a bit about black culture and knows that, “they [Black people] make up about 13% of the overall population and commit almost 40% of the crime.”  There’s a lot to unpack here – beyond his supposed knowledge of black culture – but this is data.  If this writer shares with his like-minded friends, it’s no longer merely a notion but a statistic. Black men are “criminals.” Black Lives Matter activists and rioters are dangerous terrorists (thesis of a different blog I read).  The data tells us so.

What’s worse is when these viewpoints come from people with significant power and influence. I read an op-ed by Tucker Carlson on Fox News (I’m still investigating the flaw in my News app algorithm).  But in the spirit of open-mindedness, I read, “Is America being torn apart by a total, complete – but provable – lie?” The truth, as he explains, is the fact that Black people are not disproportionately singled out or killed by police, thus rendering the riots unreasonable and media-driven. And Tucker has data. Last year, of the 802 shootings by police logged, 371 of those killed were white and 236 were black. He adds that there was a total of 10 cases last year in which an unarmed Black person was killed by police, going on to try and justify each. He feared the lie was “used by cynical media manipulators and unscrupulous politicians who understand that racial strife – race hatred – is their path to power, even if it destroys the country.”  This is a man flouting petulant bullshit in the wake of a real crisis. It’s also a man whose show has millions of viewers.  And it’s a man who has data – he might not have a soul or a conscience – but he has data.     

Of course, there are statistics, facts, figures, entire books which amplify the opposition here. But while data matter, while information matters, it took diverting my eyes from books, NPR articles, and graphs for me to start seeing a bigger picture.  The pulse of the movement is not numbers. It is not documentaries. It is people.

To set the scene: this is a rally Carlisle, a small, Central Pennsylvanian community.  This is the same Carlisle that houses my monolithic group of white, middle-class adult friends.  It’s the same town where my company, led by mostly white males, employs mostly white males, in a city where most authorities are white males, in a county where white males make up many legislating bodies.

Enter the first speaker.  She’s a Black woman, an educator at the local high school, who first remarked how, by removing her mask to speak, she could breathe. No sooner had those words left her mouth, she began crying.  Raw emotion.  Our mayor, a Black man, spoke about our duty to stand up to racism, adding unequivocally his pleas to local lawmakers to pass much-needed police reform legislation.  The crowd responded to his passion with loud applause and cheering. Raw emotion. We heard from the Black Dean of Students at the local college, who struggled to grasp the difficulty of having “the talk” with his kids.  The talk, he explained morosely, wasn’t the typical birds-and-bees talk; it was a set of guidelines to keep his kids safe if pulled over by the cops – in my community.  A remarkable Black high school teen poured her heart out in front of the audience, reflecting on intersectional fear for her life (“Will I see age 30?” she asked) and frustration at the subtle racial remarks from peers, teachers, community members.  Local Black students reflected on the things they can’t do safely, like jog, get a speeding ticket, party on New Year’s, have a broken taillight, all because of the carnage before them.

And it was in this moment, listening to these speakers as they were moved to tears, to anger, to passion, to raw emotion, that I realized that nobody here gave a damn about crime statistics or policing data.  These speakers, who were parents, children, students, teachers, elected officials, volunteers, athletes, community leaders, and so much more – they all spoke from the heart. And they did so not because 1 in 3 Black males will be convicted of a crime in their lifetime. They did not do so because in random “stop and frisk” situations in New York, police targeted minorities over 85% of the time.  They did so because they were hurting.  And no statistic could possibly measure up to the tears, to the calls to action, for the applause, and to the emotion reverberating from the microphone.

These speakers didn’t feel this fear and anger because of media conditioning; they were speaking from experience.  And you cannot measure experience, you cannot measure emotion, you cannot measure pain. And I learned something important about how we approach this dialogue. Because the data matter.  Very much so.  We need to track and share data that contributes to systemic racism in order to aid in understanding of these issues, erase past mistakes, and drive policy.  We need authors like Michelle Alexander and Marc Lamont Hill and Bryan Stevenson and Ari Berman, who paint real issues with data-driven brushstrokes. But we should never undermine the power of raw emotion, of anger, sadness, outrage and fear.  It’s these emotions that propel the arguments so strongly, that help us contextualize these pivotal moments in our history.

I will never understand what it’s like to be Black in America.  As I learn more, I’m going to try to do more to be antiracist, to do more to fight for justice and for reform. I’m also going to stop overlooking the most prominent evidence in this argument – the way people feel. Data, statistics, they can be manipulated to fit any narrative.  But you can’t manipulate emotion, and there’s nothing realer than that.

Black Lives Matter.

2 thoughts on “What We Cannot Learn from Data

  1. This line really stood out to me — And it’s a man who has data – he might not have a soul or a conscience – but he has data.

    That speaks to so MANY area of life — beyond even the situation related to the black community. I offer the current leader of the U.S. as Exhibit A.

    Great post! And I agree … black lives DO matter!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Nan. POTUS is prime example – so much so that I try and leave him out of my writing now because he’s merely a symptom of all the worst ideals of our country.
      A great example for me is how our leader, who can supposedly capture the ‘pulse’ of America so well, stands so distant when the community is hurting. A Bible photo op during a time when the country’s true racial character once again reveals itself is just reprehensible. He can tout unemployment data all he wants, but the country is HURTING right now. It pisses me off. This could be a blog in and of itself.
      Be well!

      Liked by 2 people

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The Ghetto Activist

Countering 400+ years of misinformation degradation & systemic oppression.

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