Privilege and Racism: Numbers Count, in Many Different Ways

By Earl Lewis and Nancy Cantor

At the beginning of the week we learned President Donald J. Trump told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in a phone call, “All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state.” The president was focused on numbers.

By midweek the horrifying pictures of the storming of the U.S. Capitol brought to mind the chants and confederate flag-waving violence of Charlottesville, 2017, and stood in sharp contrast to months of largely peaceful BLM protests in cities across the land. Many had come to Washington, D.C. because of what they had been told about numbers.

Scores will dissect Wednesday’s culminating events from a multitude of angles and will certainly focus on the sad state of civic democracy and the heightened socio-political polarization. We hope they also zero in on the importance of numbers.

Because Wednesday’s attempted insurrection as well as the events leading up to the assault on the Capitol offer a stark reminder of how numbers count and are counted in many consequential ways in this country as a function of history, memory, power, privilege, and position. That point is both alarming and ironic at a time when counting and counts in a falsely contested election set the stage for the exposure of not only the sins of today but the sins of yesterday.

“How to Lie with Statistics,” the all-time best seller in the field, was published more than a half-century ago, but never has that saying felt weightier than today. Our social accounting of the last few months demonstrate the hard way numbers play into a long-standing history of racism and “white”[1] privilege.

The relatively few “looters” (white and BIPOC) documented among massive crowds of overwhelmingly peaceful BLM protesters manage to color the narrative, leading some national figures to equate a crowd of marauding, mostly white Capitol Hill rioters to those largely peaceful marches. When it is convenient to assimilate the crowd to the few, it can be effectively enhanced by implicitly and explicitly evoking long-standing racist tropes, such as “the violent Black.” When instead it better serves devious intent to differentiate from the crowd, it is easy to play to normative assumptions about the dominant group, such as “very fine people on both sides.” Lying with statistics, aided and abetted by racism and racial assumptions, encourages the use and misuse of numbers.

The role of numbers goes further, unfortunately, as not only does racism enable lying with statistics, but in a recursive circle of influence, the threat of numbers perpetuates racism, not only in these vivid public events but even more perniciously in everyday life. This is especially true in a landscape where demographic changes, referred to by demographer William Frey as the Diversity Explosion, foretell the end of a white numerical majority and threaten the dominance of white privilege to its core.

For the last four or so decades, in our so-called “color blind” society, the dominant white majority has been just fine endorsing “diversity,” as long as what we mean by that is only a relatively modest shift in numbers. As such, the inclusion in classrooms, board rooms, lunchrooms, and the halls of Congress, pertains mainly to those “exceptional” (read few) candidates who “rise above adversity” to excel, continuing a tradition of minority status, though barely making a dent in the implicit perceptions of their group writ large. In this tradition, as well-earned and hard-won as are the seats of the first Black and the first Jewish Georgia Senators elected this past week — clearly shifting if not threatening the dominant electoral presumptions — one can only keep looking to the day when the table itself is reset to actually represent the demographics and full talent pool of our full country.

Numbers matter; not just, though importantly, in their power to threaten privilege, but more positively in the freedom they can bestow. Freedom from “representation” — with the stereotype threat it entails, as the “solo” representative carries the signature, with all its historical baggage, of the group through every door allowed to finally enter. Freedom for others to see as much variation within groups as between them. Progress will come, then, when previously and currently dominated, excluded, denigrated groups can actually be accorded the “comfort in numbers” taken so for granted by those in power and heretofore the majority.

Of course, numbers are not in any way a panacea for true inclusion, but they certainly are a necessary first step. Numbers won’t alleviate the need for the hard work of building inclusive environments that actually empower a Diversity Bonus, as systems theorist Scott Page demonstrates when diverse groups bring diverse lived experience and insights to bear on all the hard problems of our world. But numbers might get us to what the late organizational theorist Katherine Phillips dreamed of — that is, a time when we spend less time defending the value of diversity, while we sit comfortably reinforcing homogeneity.

This past week showed us the insidious use of (small) numbers to perpetuate racism, though not ironically, in the so-called fraudulent vote count that some used to incite a riot on our hallowed halls of democracy, rather in the spurious analogies drawn to castigate (large) peaceful BLM protestors. Yet, it also showed us, at the very same time, the promise of numbers, when accompanied by the hard work, in this case the relentless voter registration to counter voter suppression, to build a new more representative and diverse map in Georgia on the ground, one closer indeed to the real count; one that more rightfully lets everyone count.

So as we complete our autopsies of what went wrong this past week, let’s make sure we center the role and place of numbers. Numbers can fuel lies and encourage destruction or they can be used to guide a healthy, inclusive, forward-looking democracy.

[1] “White” itself being a relative, historically constructed term that serves mostly as a cover for who is “accepted” into the American power base and given associated privilege, as the history of assimilation of Italian and Irish and Jewish Americans attests.

Higher ed leader known widely as an advocate for universities to live up to their potential as anchor institutions to advance racial equity and equitable growth

Higher ed leader known widely as an advocate for universities to live up to their potential as anchor institutions to advance racial equity and equitable growth