July 1, 2020

a few thoughts on the gap between information and action

I’ve been thinking about this piece by Mimi Onuoha that was published today, particularly this passage:

By nearly every statistical measurement possible, from housing to incarceration to wealth to land ownership, Black Americans are disproportionately disadvantaged. But the grand ritual of collecting and reporting this data has not improved the situation. American history is lined with innumerable instances of what scholar Saidiya Hartman bemoans as “the demand that this suffering be materialized and evidenced by the display of the tortured body or endless recitations of the ghastly and the terrible,” only for very little to change.

In my previous role at UM, I assisted faculty who studied juvenile justice & child welfare, contributing to research that studied policies and practices within these systems. These systems are typified almost everywhere in the US by racial disproportionalities in the persons/families that interact with them. This feature isn’t new and despite efforts to address it, it remains a persistent characteristic. In my work, I felt myself engaging in the “grand ritual” that Onuoha describes; I would hope that I was doing more than this, but many aspects of the description feel apt. This experience was the most recent stop I’ve had in a personal journey away from an optimistic (& technocratic) view of data/information. Perhaps this is embarassing to admit, especially given the past 4 years, but it took time (even before 2016) for me to accept that the link between what was true and what influenced power was more tenuous than I’d hoped. Evidence has the potential of moving people to act, but that possibility depends on the relations that people have to structures (& power) in society.

A positive trend in our discourse is the recognition (or broader acceptance) that the interpretation of data isn’t self-evident. Data doesn’t “speak” for itself; its production, curation, analysis, and consumption are mediated by the people engaged in each of these activities. This has direct implications for practitioners, like me, but I think it reaches beyond us and into society at-large. “Data” is a broad category that goes far beyond rows/columns in a table, and the processes I mentioned above are relevant to how we engage with events or issues (e.g. through content on social media). Over time, this understanding has pushed down the importance I place on the task of persuasion without accounting for what motivates people. That is, I think I’m much more skeptical of the idea that any data/evidence could be compelling on its own. It seems exceptionally naive now, but for a long time, I clung to the notion that the right frame, mode, or appeal could change almost anyone’s thinking. A faith in creative messaging was something I held onto as I engaged with family members whose views were deeply antagonistic to mine. Survey and behavioral research in social psychology encouraged me at first, but the impracticality of scaling up such interventions (or whether their findings were durable) has been an enduring theme.

Last night, there was a protest at City Hall, organized by Boise’s BLM chapter. The protestors were outnumbered over 4-to-1 by counter-protesters, who showed up with “thin blue line” flags and guns. While almost being drowned out by a counter-protestor’s siren, one of the speakers at city hall discussed how whiteness has been a violent force in our country, and that in response to BIPOC organizing, a significant number of white people fear the product will be reciprocal violence. I can only imagine this fear is what drives people to believe “buses of antifa” would roll into their small towns, what prompts people to buy military-grade weapons, and predict violent civil collapse. Even if it’s only felt unconsciously, there’s a scent of unsustainability in the air that’s increasingly apparent. I imagine this animates anxieties and anger to the degree one is invested in how things are, in managing their station during decline, in how much they believe they’ll lose materially or psychically if things were to change. But, my understanding, and as stated by the speaker(s) last night, the goal is equality and reparations for injustices past & present. Our country does seem to be unraveling, but it’s not because Black people are demanding the basic right to feel safe in their own country. As so clearly demonstrated by the pandemic, the cause is decades of neglect and policies that privilege property over people.

This is a really long way to say there’s meaningful space between getting information, and how (or if!) people act on it. And, that space can be partly explained by social position (e.g. racial identity). This would seem to place limits on the palliative value of information/education, although, to be clear, I’m not totally pessimistic on its use. The “grand ritual” of providing evidence of racism’s consequences to people who are disinclined to hear it certainly feels like a dead-end. All of these things aren’t novel observations, and the article I linked to discusses these things better than I’m doing here. I’m really just trying to work through the hateful things I saw and heard yesterday.

While it feels almost contradictory after all the above, like the author of the piece, I think learning about our history can help. Seeing the many continuities in our history helped me transcend a public education that too often treated our past as the past. I can’t point to specifics, but widespread notions of colorblindness (pre-BLM) and certain misconceptions about MLK and the Civil Rights movement seem to align with my experience. It seems we leave much untold or present things too cleanly, and without the knowledge of what you don’t know, it’s understandable why people are left with some of the impressions they have. It’s small, but this has become a needling source of shame, given my interest and attraction to the histories of Europe, eastern Asia, and southeast Asia during college. I was ignorant and disinterested in my own country, with a 20-year-old’s confidence that I’d learned enough to get by. As I’ve turned my sights home, American history has felt much less discrete, and how recently some of our “history” occurred has become more apparent. My time in the midwest, specifically visiting historical spaces and museums in Detroit and Chicago, was a catalyst for this change.

In any case, despite my reservations about crafting a reading list, I have 3 texts I think people should read. I ground all of this with the knowledge that only 1-2 people ever click on links I post on twitter, and that if you’re reading this it’s likely you’re a friend.1 I mention these primarily because they haven’t shown up in most of the lists I’ve come across lately. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. “Racecraft: the Soul of Inequality in American Life” – Karen E. Fields & Barbara J. Fields
  2. “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States” – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
  3. “From #blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation” – Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

So, reading’s great, but I really hope you’re already working to close that gap between information and action. In Boise, there’s an urgent need to put pressure on our mayor and city council to reduce & reallocate funding that goes to police. The mayor released a preliminary budget this month, and the time to concretely influence our city’s priorities is now. BPD is the largest expense in Boise’s budget, and over 14 of every dollar in revenue goes to them. I believe this is wrong, and that there are better and less violent means we could use to make our cities safer & healthier (as abolitionists such as Mariame Kaba have described). BLM Boise is collecting petition signatures and has various other ways for people to get involved. Wherever you are right now, I hope you’re finding your feet as well as your voice.

  1. bold of me to assume you’ve read this far! [return]

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