Research Brief: Race and “Big Data”

We’re back to our regularly scheduled series of posts now that the awful Sterling business has died down a bit and I’m back from traveling. So, it’s Monday and that means it’s time for your research brief. This week’s round up is prompted by the terrific British Sociological Meetings I attended recently. Several scholars there are working on “big data,” including a compelling plenary by Evelyn Ruppert (Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London).  Ruppert is launching a new, open access, peer-reviewed journal called Big Data & Society.

And, most relevant for our discussion of race is the work of David Skinner (Sociology, Anglia Ruskin University), who is working in the area of race and big data. Both Ruppert’s and Skinner’s work prompted me to look for more on race and big data, and this is what you’ll find in this week’s research brief.

Research in the Dictionary

If the 1990s was all about the information superhighway and the network society, then the first 10 years of the 21st century is perhaps best described as the decade of data. Actors in different enterprises worked feverishly to develop innovative database and data mining technologies for institutional goals such as marketing, social networking, and scientific discovery. These researchers and data entrepreneurs follow an emerging belief that gathering and mining massive amounts of digital data will give objective insight into human relations and provide authentic representations for decision-making. On the surface, the technologies used to mine big data have the appearance of value-free and neutral inquiry. However, as information entrepreneurs use database and data mining technologies to purposively organize the social world, this seeming neutrality obfuscates domain assumptions and leaves cultural values and practices of power unexamined. We investigate the role of communication and social shaping of database and data mining technologies in the institutional context of genome science to understand how various stakeholders (scientists, policy makers, social scientists, and advocates) articulate racialized meanings with biological, physical, and big data. We found a rise in the use of racial discourse that suggests race has a genetic foundation.

Google Earth was released a few months prior to Hurricane Katrina and became an important tool in distributing information about the damage occurring in New Orleans, albeit not to all parts of society. While Google Earth did not create the economic and racial divides present in society, its use in the post-Katrina context reflect this gulf and have arguably reinforced and recreated it online. This paper has three main objectives. The first is to provide a clear empirical case study of how race remains relevant to the way people use (or do not use) the internet and internet based services. The second is highlighting the power of new online and interactive mapping technologies and demonstrating how these technologies are differentially adopted. The third and final objective is illustrating how any divide in accessing digital technology is not simply a one time event but a constantly moving target as new devices, software and cultural practices emerge. Thus, in addition to highlighting the racial inequalities in US society in general, Hurricane Katrina provides an important window on the way in which race remains a key factor in the access and use of emerging digital technologies.

This article explores the place of ‘ethnicity’ in the operation, management and contestation of the UK National DNA Database (NDNAD). In doing so, it examines the limitations of bioethics as a response to political questions raised by the new genetics. The UK police forensic database has been racialised in a number of distinct ways: in the over-representation of black people in the database population; in the classification of all DNA profiles according to ‘ethnic appearance’; in the use of data for experiments to determine the ethnicity of crime scene DNA; and in the focus on ethnicity in public debate about the database. This racialisation presented potential problems of legitimacy for the NDNAD but, as the article shows, these have been partly neutralised through systems of ethico-political governance. In these systems of governance discussion of institutional racism has been postponed or displaced by other ways of talking about ethnicity and identity.

Territorial borders just like other boundaries are involved in a politics of belonging, a politics of “us” and “them”. Border management regimes are thus part of processes of othering. In this article, we use the management of borders and populations in Europe as an empirical example to make a theoretical claim about race. We introduce the notion of the phenotypic other to argue that race is a topological object, an object that is spatially and temporally folded in distributed technologies of governance. To elaborate on these notions, we first examine a number of border management technologies through which both race and Europe are brought into being. More specifically we focus on how various such technologies aimed at monitoring the movement of individuals together with the management of populations have come to play crucial roles in Europe. Different border management regimes, we argue, do not only enact different versions of Europe but also different phenotypic others. We then shift the focus from border regimes to internal practices of governance, examining forensic DNA databanks to unravel articulations of race in the traffic between databases and societies.

I’d love to know about other research in this area, so if you’re working on this, don’t be shy ~ drop a comment and let me know about your work!

Research Brief: New Books in the Field

Breaking Ground:
My Life in Medicine

by Louis W. Sullivan with David Chanoff
(University of Georgia Press)

Gendered Resistance:
Women, Slavery, and the Legacy of Margaret Garner

edited by Mary E. Frederickson and Delores M. Walters
(University of Illinois Press)

River of Hope:
Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865–1954

by Elizabeth Gritter
(University Press of Kentucky)

The Great White Way:
Race and the Broadway Musical

by Warren Hoffman
(Rutgers University Press)
~ This collection of reading was originally posted at the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education website.

Research Brief: New Work in the Field

Mondays are getting a new feature here. As part of the revamped schedule, we’ll post short briefs about the latest research on race, racism and how that intersects with other dimensions of inequality.



Whenever possible, I’ll include an abstract or brief description about each piece of research.  I’ll also note which citations are Open Access (OA) or locked behind a paywall or otherwise not available on the open web (locked).  Here’s today’s round up (in Chicago Style citation format):

  •  Chávez-GarcÍa, Miroslava. “The Interdisciplinary Project of Chicana History: Looking Back, Moving Forward.” Pacific Historical Review 82, no. 4 (2013): 542-565. Chicana history has come a long way since its inception in the 1960s and 1970s. While initially a neglected area of study limited to labor and class, today scholars in history, literature, anthropology, and sociology, among others, study topics of gender, culture, and sexuality, as well as youth culture, reproductive rights, migration, and immigration. In the process, these scholars contribute to the collective project of Mexican and Mexican American women’s history in the United States, making it diverse in its analytical themes, methodologies and sources. Indeed, Chicana history is not confined by disciplinary boundaries. Rather, its cross-disciplinary nature gives its life. This article charts that interdisciplinarity and demonstrates its significance in expanding and recasting Chicano history more broadly. (locked)
  • Cresswell, Catherine, Kevin A. Whitehead, and Kevin Durrheim. “The anatomy of ‘race trouble’in online interactions.” Ethnic and Racial Studies ahead-of-print (2014): 1-16. South Africa has a long history of race-related conflicts in a variety of settings, but the use of the concept ‘racism’ to analyse such conflicts is characterized by theoretical and methodological difficulties. In this article, we apply the alternative ‘race trouble’ framework developed by Durrheim, Mtose, and Brown (2011) to the examination of racialized conflicts in online newspaper forums. We analyse the conflicts using an approach informed by conversation analytic and discursive psychological techniques, focusing in particular on the emergence and use of race and racism as interactional resources. Our findings reveal some mechanisms through which the continuing salience of race in South Africa comes to be reproduced in everyday interactions, thereby suggesting reasons why race continues to garner social and cultural importance. Disagreements over the nature of racism were also recurrent in the exchanges that we examined, demonstrating the contested and shifting meanings of this concept in everyday interactions. (locked)
  • Hellman, Deborah. “Racial Profiling and the Meaning of Racial Categories.”Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics 22 (2014): 232.  Hellman argues that racial profiling by government officials is often more problematic than that done by individuals. (locked)
  • Nogueira, Simone Gibran. “Ideology of white racial supremacy: colonization and de-colonization processes.” Psicologia & Sociedade 25, no. SPE (2013): 23-32.   This article is a literature review on how the ideology of white racial supremacy dehumanizes and colonizes the minds of Whites and Blacks in Brazil. For this aim I use critical references about whiteness to highlight dehumanization processes in Whites, and I make use of critical references of Black and African studies to examine specific dehumanization processes of the Black population. Furthermore, the work seeks to reflect on possibilities of mental humanization and de-colonization in both groups considering current policies of Affirmative Action in Education in Brazil.(OA)
  • Thakore, Bhoomi K. “Must‐See TV: South Asian Characterizations in American Popular Media.” Sociology Compass 8, no. 2 (2014): 149-156. In the 21st century, representations of South Asians in American popular television have increased significantly. However, there has been very little critical analysis on the ways in which these characters are created and produced. In this review, I use literature from the sociology of race/ethnicity, immigration, and critical media studies to identify the concept of “(ethnic) characterization.” While it may be assumed that these representations are created unconsciously, I suggest that media producers intentionally use particular ethnic characteristics that are identified and discussed in contemporary sociological literature. As a result, I argue that these types of media characterizations representations are relevant to these types of media characterizations discipline of sociology. (OA) 

Do you have new research on race, ethnicity, or racism? Want it included in an upcoming Research Brief?  Use the contact form to let us know about your work.  Be sure to include an abstract and a link.

Racism in 2011: A Year End Review

As the year 2011 ends, there are several good year-end reviews about racial justice, this video from Colorlines and this post from a David J. Leonard writing at New Black Man, are both excellent.  We here at Racism Review offer this as our own brief, and necessarily incomplete, recap of some of the notable events in the struggle for racial justice. Be sure to scroll all the way to the end, there are some victories there, too ~ and a challenge for you at the end.

We lost some fierce champions and scholar-activists:

  • Manning Marable, aged 60, died in April, just days before his epic biography of Malcolm X was published.
  • Derrick Bell, aged 80, a founder of critical race theory who famously resigned his tenured position at Harvard Law School in protest over their failure to hire any women of color, died in October.

Lots of things happened in 2011 which illustrate just how entrenched racial inequality (still) is, including:

  • the execution of Troy Davis and the ongoing racism of the New Jim Crow. I argued here at the time of Davis’ execution that the U.S. death penalty is akin to the American practice of lynching in which black and brown people, especially men, are executed in disproportionately high numbers as a means of social control.
  • the Occupy Wall Street movement, initiated and led predominantly by white people, missed the racial significance of the “occupy” terminology, and thereby missed an opportunity to galvanize a movement across racial boundaries.  Dick Gregory said in October that the Occupy movement had a ‘whiff’ of the civil rights movement, with a key difference: “The difference between this movement and our movement is that white people — rich, poor, educated — are born with 300 years of white privilege. So there are certain things that you don’t do to me when you’re born with privileges. When it was us, the cops could do anything they wanted to. You can’t do these children like this.”
  • the racism in presidential politics has been off the hook this year, with the Republicans on center stage as they search for a viable opponent to defeat President Obama.  This is not to say that Democrats are not capable of practicing racism in the service of a political goal, it’s just that the Republicans have been taking up all the air time. From the buffoonery of Herman Cain and the strategic racism of his Koch brothers’ supporters, to the ‘food stamp president’ racism of Newt Gingrich, to the white-supremacist-supported campaign of Ron Paul, it’s been an epic year for racism in presidential politics.
  • immigration reform has stalled and deportations have increased under President Obama. In 2010, the U.S. government deported some 400,000 people, more than in the entire decade of the 1980s. However, it’s not all immigrants who are being targeted; research indicates that Asian and European immigrants are almost never deported, yet blacks and Latinos are deported in large numbers.
  • Facebook (and YouTube) racism continue. In a move that continues to baffle me (you know we can see what you’re saying, right?), white people continue to post racist crap to Facebook, YouTube and any other form of social media.  One of the more infamous examples from 2011 was Alexandra Wallace, former UCLA college student, who posted a racist video of herself mocking her Asian American classmates. She later left UCLA amid reported death threats. More recently, the racist postings on Facebook by NYPD cops was exposed.
  • Islamophobia on the rise, and mass murder in Norway. In July, Anders Breivik opened fire on a Norwegian camp killing about 90 people, many of them children. He was said to be upset about “immigrants” especially Muslim immigrants that were supposedly “destroying Europe.”  In the U.S., Rep. Peter King (R-NY), led the way in fomenting Islamophobia through a series of congressional hearings that targeted Muslims living in the U.S. as potential terrorists. King refused to focus any of his congressional hearing on predominantly white militia groups or white supremacist organizations.

A few things that happened in 2011 which might be helping create a more just world (and which you could do in 2012):

  • Changing the language we use. The Drop the I-Word campaign, to get people to stop using the word “illegal” and terms like “anchor baby” has been extremely successful and even got the New York Times to remove the word “illegal” from its official style guide.
  • Documentaries and digital videos that tell different stories. Independent non-fiction visual media, such as documentaries and DIY digital video, have become increasingly accessible to everyday users and that means that there has been a proliferation of the kinds of stories people can tell. These stories often run counter to the dominant narratives and have the power to change things.  Stories like those told in “The Interrupters,” about young people working to end gang violence, can open up new dialogues and create new opportunities for change. The easy access to digital video allows people to reframe media stories in which they are subjects, re-positioning themselves as narrators of their own stories.
  • Research that exposes racism and chips away at the liberal ideology that we live in a ‘post-racial’ society.  All the many contributors here at the RR blog try to do this, along with lots of other scholar-activists.
  • Celebrating differences. Audre Lorde wrote “It is not our differences that divide us.  It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.” Some women who are putting that philosophy into practice are these Latina Moms who have been active in publicly supporting their LGBT kids. Embracing this kind of practical intersectionality undermines those political strategies that try to divide and conquer us.  It’s this kind of effort that is the heart of coalition building, and we need lots more of it.
  • Social media campaigns that push back against racism.  There have been some clever social media campaigns to push back against racism, including a (now defunct site) called “PWSNT” which is an acronym for “People Who Said [the N-word] Today,” with the tag line, “every morning, the hottest, freshest screenshots of white people using the n-word.”  Just as the name of the site promises, it posts the photo and full name of people who have used the n-word in their social networking site profile. Although no longer active, there are other sites like this which have sprung up in its place, like this Tumblr site, “I’m not a racist, but…”
  • The international human rights campaign to end the death penalty. Amnesty International mobilized people to save Troy Davis’ life, and when that failed, continued to mobilize concerned people to make abolishing the death penalty an international human rights issue.  In my view, making the criminal justice system in the U.S., and especially the blatantly racist death penalty, a human rights issue will be an important wedge in ending this injustice.
  • The nascent Occupy the Prison Industrial Complex movement. In the final hours of 2011 as I was finishing this post, some protesters from the Occupy movement were headed to a Manhattan correctional facility to begin an ‘occupation’ there. Occupy DC has already started mobilizing against Wells Fargo and their funding of private prisons. The massive prison industrial complex, which is premised on the elite privilege of a few white people, is funded my large banks, ‘profiteers of misery,’ who make money from the incarceration of millions of people, almost all black or brown. If the Occupy movement is really concerned with addressing the stark inequality between the 1% and the 99%, and wants to do that important work of coalition building, I can think of no better place to start than with those who seek to make a profit from the New Jim Crow.

What will you do in 2012 contribute to the struggle for racial justice?