The issue of racial classification is central to both the history of statistics and how it is used to model problems and solutions in the current day. Historically, the rise of statistics in the nineteenth and twentieth century coincided with emerging social theorems about race and power. Statistical discoveries in western science communities were interwoven with the American and European worldview that centralized whiteness. The mathematicians who codified the methodology of modern statistics were steeped in the worldview of western traditions.
Eighteenth century western viewpoints to justify the inhumanity of slavery and colonization are embedded in the field of demographics. As societies grew in size and complexity throughout Europe and the Americas, and colonization became widespread, the counting and classification of humans became increasingly important to the governments of these nations. The creation of marked racial strata within demography was based on notions from theology, and later justified by biology and eugenics. The separation of humans into racial groups was used to justify slavery and colonial domination. There distinctions were used to form hierarchies that elevated whiteness above all. This stratification and power relationship is what cannot be eliminated when racial signifiers are used as variables within statistical studies. The output of the studies are always non-neutral but embedded in the cultural stratification.
Now as then, notions of personal qualities and social fitness, became embedded as assumptions within racial grouping. Deconstructing the beliefs stemming from statistical findings means that interrogating the ideas of what can be accurately and fairly measured is as important as examining how those measurements are interpreted. Zuberi criticizes social statistics, “Statistical populations consist of observed measures of some characteristic ; yet no observational record can capture completely what it is to be a human being. “11
Given that so many of our statistics now and throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century explicitly incorporated racial strata, it is important to wonder who this process serves and whether it achieves its intended purpose. Race is a socially constructed classification, not a naturally occurring phenomenon. Whether respondents in a study are classified by the researcher or classify themselves into racial groupings both the notion of difference and the validity of classification are reinforced. The socially constructed classification of race in America is not simply a set variable but it is a label that is associated with a power relationship.
In addition, the classification and acute study of differences based on this abstract social construct ignores the oppression of the dominant class by returning focus to the differences of those who are oppressed. Not only is it important to ask who decides the classification to which a person “belongs” but to what purpose is the classification itself. The U.S. Census defers to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to define racial classifications and then asks people to “self-select” their own identity from this bureaucratic menu as though the self-selection can remove the data from cultural ideas of dominance.
The idea of race as a discernible, neutral or fixed variable disguises the power that racial demarcation carries. Is racial identity measurable? What does that variable measure? Does slicing our statistical studies along “racial lines'' help to identify inequalities to effectively dislodge them or does it reinforce the status quo by continually restating the norm of racialized data? Is this social construct of race a worthy way to divide our human community, and does it help us attain progressive aims? Even within progressive thinking does it reinforce the dominant narrative?
These questions about the role of classification and the domination inherent in deciding how to frame the measurements are vital. Students need to ask questions about who collects data, who the data is intended to influence and who has the power deferential in the situation in which the data is playing a role. These questions will pervade the discussions of the introductory unit as we explore census data and build a skepticism and critical sensibility into our examination of data throughout the class.
As a way of contrasting the dominant narrative with the resistant narrative, we will examine non-governmental data sets that have been critical to understanding and making change in society. Often these are topics that have been politically off limits for the government and yet are existentially important for many people in the country. These include the work WEB DuBois created for the 1900 Paris Exposition, the work of Monroe Work to study lynching. Some of the future exploration in the class depends on student interest and will look at data to explore historical and contemporary issues.