At the end of May our local police department released a statement on city traffic stops, a day ahead of the attorney general’s annual report covering all stops made across the state. “Black drivers continue to be overrepresented in Columbia Police Department traffic stops” as a local newspaper summed it up, “and the numbers are even worse than in 2016.” Despite Black residents making up less than 10% of the city’s population, Black drivers were over 4 times more likely to be stopped than White drivers, as one city council member noted at the end of a public comment session where several local residents spoke out on the issue. From the statistical data, to residents’ critical comments, including one Black resident’s direct experiences being routinely followed and stopped, racial profiling by seemingly all accounts remains the norm, and overall appears to be getting steadily worse.
By all accounts, well, except for the police and the city manager’s anyway. “We continue to look at data and we have not seen an apparent pattern of profiling…,” the city manager assured. “[H]owever, we acknowledge that some community members have experiences with officers that make them have negative feelings and perceptions about police.” His assurances, among other things, sound eerily close to the police chief’s own statements last year about the previous year’s report: “We will vigilantly continue to look for additional data we can collect that would give our community a fuller picture of the reason each traffic stop is conducted” (emphasis mine). But if a “disparity index of 3.28 for African American drivers, an increase from 3.13 in 2016” doesn’t signify a pattern, what would? According to our officials, the answer is the same as it was a year ago: more data and/or analysis is needed to say for sure what the data is telling them. Meanwhile, the dissonance between what they say and what the data shows continues to grow. Indeed, it almost seems as though these two things exist in parallel dimensions from one another.
Watching city officials apparently disregard the data that they themselves cite as valid is infuriating and perplexing. It feels like watching bad TV. You asked me to suspend my disbelief for this and yet here is a glaring plot hole in your story. Not only for the obvious ways that it downplays the well-known and common negative interactions people of color and Black people in particular experience from heightened policing. But also, for the ways that it disturbs our implicit faith in statistical analysis, both as a check on power and as the basis of a supposedly fairer, less biased form of civic governance. More upsetting than the mixed messages from city leaders, then, is what it implies about our reliance on statistics and data-driven analysis in the first place.
“Statistics are never objective,” as Jenny Davis put it here. “Rather, they use numeric language to tell a story, and entail all of the subjectivity of storytelling.” Both the CPD’s statement and the attorney general’s comprehensive report epitomize this subjective, data storytelling, even if they come dressed in the authority of objective fact. The data can be inconsistent, contain “deficiencies” of reporting or “may not accurately portray relevant rates,” according to the attorney general’s neutral-sounding language, but it can’t ever be biased. The higher rate at which police stop Black drivers, as rendered in a disparity index and spelled out in the report, thus serve not as evidence of profiling, but proof of the state’s transparency and impartiality. Don’t take our word for it, in other words, look at the data and draw your own conclusions.
Though statistical storytelling is often leveraged by the powerful to “discount the voices of the oppressed,” as Davis argues, this fact doesn’t preclude marginalized groups from using statistics to counter power’s universalizing narratives. Drawing on Candace Lanius’s point, that demands for statistical proof of racism are themselves racist, Davis argues for “making a distinction between objects and subjects of statistical demand.” “That is, we can ask,” Davis says, “who is demanding statistical proof from whom?” By backing personal stories with statistical facts, this tactic “assumes that the powerful are oppressive, unless they can prove otherwise,” and so “challenges those voices whose authority is, generally, taken for granted.” The same data used by the powerful to mollify or defuse dissenting voices, then, can be turned into a liability, one that organizers and activists may exploit to their advantage.
Local groups and community members have applied this tactic in my city to visible effect. Through public pressure at city council meetings, numerous op-eds and social media word of mouth, racial justice groups and informed residents have shaped local media coverage and public conversation in their favor. These efforts led the city council to enact a community engagement process last year, and have pushed the city manager and police chief into defensive apologia. Perhaps the most substantive outcome of all has been in fostering greater public skepticism of everyday policing practices and community interest in alternatives.
These accomplishments speak to statistical data’s efficacy as a tool for influencing governance and encouraging political participation. But without taking anything away from this success, like every tactic it has limits. As many people directly involved will point out, the City has yet to pass meaningful policy changes to reverse the excessive policing of Black residents, nor has it adopted a “community-oriented” model that many are calling for. Indeed, the worsening racial disparity figures reflect this lack of material progress. Statistical storytelling isn’t less necessary, but it can only go so far.
This point was made acute for me after a regular council speaker and member of racial justice group Race Matters, Friends shared an analysis of the issue as it existed under slightly different leadership in 2014. And aside from marginally less bad numbers at the time, the analysis only seems more relevant to the present moment:
But while the results of the attorney general’s study seem to show an unequivocal bias against [Black people], the response to the report from the police, the community and researchers has been a mixed bag. The debate over what to make of the numbers, or even whether anything should be made of them, has done more to muddle the issues surrounding racial disparities in policing than to clarify them.
Instead of “muddling” the issue, we might revise this to say statistics have arguably augmented and entrenched each party’s positions. This is not to imply that “both sides” hold similar authority, merit or responsibility however. The point is that each side has applied the data to bolster their respective narratives.
Statistical storytelling can force a conversation with power, but it can’t make it listen. The fact a 4-year-old analysis resonates even more with today’s situation may show City leaders’ intransigence, but it also offers us an opportunity to reassess the present moment and how recent history might inform future efforts. Because if my city’s recent past is an indicator, swaying local leadership (let alone policing outcomes) has been hard fought but incremental, and still leaves a lot more to be desired.
A thorough reassessing of the present would ideally engender a concerted and ongoing effort amongst constituents of local marginalized communities, organizers, scholars and activists. Note: cops and elected officials don’t make the list. A key form that this could take might be a renewed engagement in the sort of political education that veteran organizer Mariame Kaba suggested recently, “where people can sit together, read together, think together over a period of time.” “And the engagement matters as much as the content,” Kaba says, because “It’s in our conversations with each other that we figure out what we actually know and think.”
From free brake light clinics and community bail funds to grad student organizing and ICE protests, concrete efforts are abundant and provide a form of implicit, hands-on education for their actors. At the same time, sustaining these and other actions is often a struggle, with a bulk of the work falling on the same core group of organizers and activists. Indulging in more explicit political education, as a conscious practice, could be a way to garner and retain the broader participation that’s needed. Besides its functional utility for recruitment, though, perhaps political education’s most immediate draw is the innate and self-edifying experience it can bring us in the moment. Where dire news and a stream of reactive commentary drains us, learning with each other can restore our stamina, providing a creative outlet for “unleashing people’s imaginations while getting concrete,” to quote Kaba again.
It would be a mistake to try and define exactly how this collective learning would look, but we can think of some ways to cultivate it. For instance, we can avoid “placing hopes in a particular device or gadget (e.g. a technological fix), or in a change in a policy or formal institution (e.g. a social fix),” as David Banks argues here. Instead, we might pursue a “culture fix” as Linda Layne defines it, which as Banks writes, “focuses on changing the perceptions, conceptualizations and practices that directly interact with technologies.” Technologies here being systems like policing, for example, as mechanisms of social control. Or the techniques local municipalities like mine employ, such as soliciting feedback to better funnel and restrain public outcry.
Pursing a culture fix, as it entails shifting perceptions and practices, implores meaningful participation too, without constricting our imaginative horizons to the current order. “What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, in experiments and possibilities,” as Ruth Wilson Gilmore said. Reading Gilmore, Keguro Macharia writes, “I think she wanted to arrest how our imaginations are impeded by dominant repressive frameworks, which describe work toward freedom as “impossible” and “unthinkable.” She wanted to arrest the paralysis created when we insist that the entire world must be remade and, in the process, void the quotidian practices that we want to multiply and intensify.” From the expanded viewpoint that political education affords, we can imagine beyond pressing elected officials to reform how the police operate, and envision a world without police altogether. In this vein, I hope this post serves as one singular and partial stab at the type of political education alluded to above.
Image Credit: D-brief/Discover Magazine
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