Internationally recognized writer and scholar says race, data inextricably linked
Tressie McMillan Cottom’s speech part of ongoing Ohio State lecture series
Growing as a society, whether in policy, economics or education, will require a deeper understanding of the ways in which data and race intersect, an internationally renowned scholar said yesterday during a virtual lecture at The Ohio State University.
“I can’t think of a more vital, intersectional topic in all of U.S. public life right now than the one we can have at the intersection of race and data,” said Tressie McMillan Cottom, a writer, professor, sociologist and 2020 MacArthur Fellow. “We have as a public, as a society, as a nation, experienced over the last few months just how critical data and race are to the vitality of U.S. civic and public life.”
That plays out in public, visible ways – the marches and protests over the killing of Black people by police officers that helped define much of 2020 – and in invisible ones – the way companies and public institutions collect and use an individual’s data to market services to them or make choices about their futures.
McMillan Cottom, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spoke as part of the Ohio State Provost’s Discovery Themes Lecturer Program, which invites experts to discuss big societal issues with the Ohio State community.
On Wednesday, McMillan Cottom spoke about the ways in which data and race have interacted in U.S. history, and the ways in which they will shape our society into the future.
Consider Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws establishing school segregation by race are unconstitutional, McMillan Cottom said.
In that case, the court’s decision noted testimony and data supplied by two psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, that showed the clear harm segregation caused to Black children. That data included a comprehensive review of academic studies, which showed the harm segregation caused to children who were Chinese-American, Indigenous, and other non-white races. In that case, McMillan Cottom argued, social science data played a crucial role in the decision, which led to critically needed policy changes across the United States.
And the power that comes from thinking about how data and race combine continues today, she said. Capitalism and racism, she said, are inextricably linked – and the same is true of race, data and online platforms.
“Questions about inequality in our society cannot be fully understood if we do not understand how race and data and platforms co-create each other, much in the way you cannot get capitalism without the invention of race,” she said. “They go together like peanut butter and jelly.”
To for-profit companies, people are more valuable as data than as customers, she said. And, she added, as is usually the case when racism and capitalism collide, not everyone lives that reality in the same way.
For-profit universities use data to target marketing efforts at Black people, especially Black women, she said. Lawmakers setting criminal justice policy use algorithms to try and determine which defendants in a criminal case are likely to break the law again – and those algorithms, she said, often result in worse outcomes for Black defendants than they do for white defendants.
And companies, from grocery stores to online retailers, gather data about customers that customers often do not even realize is being collected.
“It’s deliberate that we don’t know the reach of our data. It’s not opaque by accident,” she said. “And that’s one of the real challenges in how governance has lagged and how our own demand for transparency has lagged among the public.
“The private control of platforms becomes really evident,” McMillan Cottom said. “It’s never free. It may be free to use, but it’s never free: There’s always a price to be paid. And the price for that amplification effect is that you cannot control how that information is received, archived and then triangulated and used.”
One Black Lives Matter activist, she said, was located by police via a comment that the activist made on an Etsy shop.
“That’s the power that is given to platforms,” she said.
And because that power is held by private companies, users do not have the authority or pull to lobby for changes, she said.
“If every time you hear someone say the word ‘app’ or ‘platform,’ you instead think the words ‘economy’ or ‘citizenship,’ then I think you’ll come to the same conclusion I have, which is that platforms have become the economy,” she said. “They’ve become governance; they are the structures of how we work, how we vote, how we live.”