Data Portraits by W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895. Afterwards he became a professor at Atlanta University, where he established what is now known as the first school of American sociology. While at Atlanta University, he taught history, sociology, and economics. Du Bois recognized the power sociology could play in bringing light to social structures that “separated black and white populations, whether that came to educational attainment, voting rights or land ownership.”48
In 1899, Thomas Calloway, an educator, journalist, lawyer, and former classmate of Du Bois, petitioned the US government to include an exhibit on the progress of African Americans since slavery at the Paris World Fair of 1900. Calloway approached Du Bois about contributing to the exhibit. Du Bois initially planned to include 500 photographs that depicted daily life, but realized the photographs “did not relay the underlining ways that the institution of slavery continued to impact African-American progress in the country.”49 Instead, Du Bois, with the help of a team of colleagues, Atlanta University alumni, and students, set out to create sixty data visualizations to provide a counternarrative.
Du Bois’ first set of portraits provided focused data on African Americans in Georgia, which at the time had the largest black population in the United States, while his second set revealed more holistic data of the U.S. black population. Data sets included family budgets, occupations, land and property ownership, literacy rates, and population size, to name a few. Du Bois wielded his portraits as a sociological tool to display the realities and sustained inequalities in America post emancipation. Today his data portraits are not only lauded for the counternarrative they provided, but also for their creativity. Even “before the rise of Europe’s avant-garde movements,” Du Bois utilized a variety of modernist techniques like bright colors and unique shapes and structures to add a layer of complexity and beauty to his data.50
Today, journalists, artists, and activists are finding new and creative ways to shed light on inequality in America through data visualizations. Two such projects include the 1619 Project and the Mapping L.A. Project. The 1619 Project was conceived by Nikole Hannah-Jones with New York Times Magazine and “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”51 The Los Angeles Times’ “Mapping L.A.” project uses an interactive digital map of L.A.’s 114 neighborhoods to engage with and highlight people’s varied experiences and realities throughout the city. Alternative visualizations make data more accessible and thought provoking to the lay consumer. While I do not plan to go in depth into either of these projects, I feel obligated to mention them as further examples of the power behind data visualizations and how they can be used to shed light on inequality within a community. Perhaps they will provide further inspiration for your own work.
The activities that follow provide a jumping off point for math teachers to incorporate culturally relevant activities in their classrooms. I have chosen to provide several examples from a sampling of classes instead of from a single unit in a single class in order to better illustrate how culturally relevant curricula can be used throughout the traditional high school pathways. Each activity was inspired by W.E.B Du Bois’ Data Portraits, which will provide a common theme for the activities. The activities aim to provide a social context in which to recognize academic and social inequality within the community. These activities will illustrate how mathematics can be used to engage students in topics that matter in their communities and open a dialogue about how to create change. The activities do not provide direct solutions to any of the given problems but instead provide an opportunity for students to brainstorm their own solutions. Each task provides a low-floor and high-ceiling, which allows easy entry for all students while raising expectations.
Initial Task: Exploring W.E.B. Du Bois’ Data Portraits
Have students examine selected images from W.E.B. Du Bois’ Data Portraits collection. This will occur as an initial exposure for students to data visualizations. Ask students to reflect on what type of data is on display and what is unique about the way in which Du Bois depicts the data. Ask students to consider why Du Bois thought this data was important to present to the world in 1900.
After giving students some time to just examine the collection, have students work in groups to use the given data on the portraits along with measurements they will take to determine missing data values portrayed in the images. Then, ask students to examine how Du Bois’ art illustrates a counter-narrative to the dominant historical perspective of African Americans in Georgia. You may consider collaborating with an American History teacher to provide a richer context for your students.
For instance, consider the visualization “Negro business men in the United States.” The portrait depicts various sizes of rectangles, but provides no hard numbers. Ask students to measure the dimensions of each rectangle and calculate the areas. By using proportions, students can determine the percentage of African Americans that held each type of job (general merchandise stores, grocers, bankers, undertakers, building contractors, druggists, publishers, and building and loan associates). This assignment can lead to conversations about black-owned businesses within the community.
Also consider the data visualization “Acres of Land Owned by Negroes in Georgia.” The bar graph only provides numeric values for the years 1874 and 1899. Ask students to take measurements and use proportions to determine numeric values for other years. Afterward, discuss trends in the data. Ask students to describe what they see and any growth patterns that might exist. Ask students to consider what the implications of land ownership were for African Americans in Georgia at the time.
Through several activities described below, students will be asked to research similar data in New Haven and Connecticut to create their own data portraits of our city and state. Students will utilize the data portal CT Data Haven, which provides a wealth of statistics and resources on data visualizations for the state of Connecticut. Students will use proportional reasoning and their understanding of area to design their own portraits. Students will be encouraged to display their data in a non-mathematically traditional format reminiscent of, though not necessarily identical to, Du Bois’ own portraits. Students’ data portraits can be displayed throughout the school.
Possible Data Sets Students Can Explore:
- Racial decomposition of the city by neighborhood (Fair Haven, East Rock, the Cove, the Hill, Westville, etc.)
- Graduation rates over time by school
- Racial decomposition of schools and per-pupil expenditures at each school
Algebra 1: School Funding vs. SAT Scores
Students will be directed to EdSight (the CT State Education Data Portal) to research data about various school districts in Connecticut, including Greenwich Public Schools, Westport Public Schools, Milford Public Schools, Naugatuck Public Schools, Middletown Public Schools, New Haven Public Schools, Hartford Public Schools, and Bridgeport Public Schools. Students will examine racial demographics, dollars spent per pupil, average SAT scores, graduation rates, and the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. Students will also research median family income and the average home values in each city/town (using Zillow). Students will work in groups to examine the strength and direction of various correlations, such as income and SAT scores or racial demographics and dollars spent per pupil.
Students will then create scatterplots to model the data and will use linear regressions to interpolate and extrapolate data about each of the school districts. Students should consider how school funding and average income impact SAT scores and graduation rates.
Geometry 1: Overcrowding in School
Prior to the pandemic, students often complained about over-crowded hallways at the school. Moreover, there were frequent population comparisons drawn between Wilbur Cross High School and Hillhouse High School (the only two comprehensive neighborhood high schools in the district). Despite having nearly identical blueprints, the two schools do not have similar population sizes. Using outlines of the schools’ blueprints, groups of students will use geometry to determine the school’s square footage, which will then be used to determine the student-per-square foot ratio of various wings and floors of the school. Students will shade blank versions of the blueprints according to the average student density throughout the day. Similar maps will be created of each of the other New Haven High Schools by working with colleagues during district-wide professional development. Students will compare maps and the results with the same ratio for each of the other high schools in New Haven.
Students will use EdSight to collect various statistics on each of the New Haven High Schools, including population size, racial demographics, percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, attendance rates, graduation rates, and SAT data. Students will examine the distribution of building size, population density, and school funding within the district and will write letters to the Board of Education to make recommendations for adjusting population sizes within the 8 New Haven high schools.
Geometry 2: Hunger and Food Insecurity
Students will explore food access throughout the various New Haven neighborhoods using concepts they learned while studying circles. Students will create three color-coded “maps” of the city depicted as a set of circles. Each neighborhood within the city will be represented by a different color circle. Circles on the first map will be sized based on land area while circles on the second map will be sized based on distance to a large-scale grocery store like Stop and Shop or Price Rite. Circles on the third map will reflect average income within each neighborhood. Students will examine the racial composition of each neighborhood and discuss how the data visualizations they created depict unequal access to healthy food options. Ask students to consider the impact of food accessibility on various neighborhoods in the city. What can be done to address this issue? How might the data visualizations be used to educate others?
Geometry 3: Driving While Black or Brown
Students will be given a bag of various colored marbles that is consistent with the general racial breakdown of the city (they will not be told this information ahead of time). Students will run a brief experiment to see what the likelihood is of pulling a specific color marble from the bag. Students will examine data pertaining to traffic violations in New Haven or East Haven and will then be told that each color marble represents a different racial demographic of the cities. Students will be asked to analyze the results from their experiment and compare them with the actual data for New Haven or East Haven. Students will engage in a conversation about the implications of the data looking distinctly different from a random sampling. Students will once again design a data portrait to represent this data.
*This activity is modeled off Eric Gutstein’s “Driving While Black or Brown” project that examined racial profiling of people of color by law enforcement in California.52