On Blackness and Data
From slavery to political campaigns, black lives have always been reduced to numbers in the form of commodities, revenue streams, statistical deviations, and vectors of risk. How do we make our escape?
During my five months as a field organizer tasked with registering people to vote, I sat behind a computer screen compulsively reviewing spreadsheets for hours at a time. Each spreadsheet organized thousands of people into neat columns of name, age, telephone number, and address, as well as special codes, percentages, and an assortment of arbitrary numerical values only decipherable by me and my colleagues. I did this day in and day out, until it became so habitual I would dream about it.
I’d often daydream in code or have nightmares about error messages. I would obsess over algorithms and became so preoccupied with data’s many exploits that whenever I met a person, I would imagine them as a row on a spreadsheet based on their ability, age, and gender. Such mental processing would go on to warp my interpretation of real events and genuine human connection even weeks after Election Day. I was no longer interested in interfacing with human bodies, just their data.
One of my duties as a field organizer was to register a shit ton of people to vote – several hundred in the county where I worked, and hundreds of thousands more across the entire state. The fastest way to register lots of people is to walk from house to house and knock on doors. I would cover between one and two hundred houses per day.
Voter registration, by its very nature, tends to exclude many poor black and brown people for being “on papers,” a euphemism for being on probation or parole, not having an address, or not being a citizen. Older black and un(der)educated people who can’t read or write are also often excluded. They are not impossible to register, but many choose to save themselves the embarrassment by declining politely. I knew this going in, but I wouldn’t pass someone up based on potentially false data or inaccurate assumptions. It wasn’t uncommon that ten out of every forty or fifty people I talked to confessed to prior criminality, being undocumented, or shielded my questions by shaming or making fun of me. Sometimes they got angry. Occasionally they confronted me with physical violence. Once, I was threatened with a garden hose nozzle and, another time by a man holding a (very docile) bull dog. While registering a group of homeless men and women at the train station, an older man in a white Jeep stepped out to ask if I “wanted to take a ride” down the block. He said he’d pay for my lunch if in return I’d trade sex. I declined his proposition and pressed on with the rest of my ten-hour day.