Like many of us these days, I find myself frequently digesting media in relation to the current presidential campaign. I am intensely interested in how this period of the American experiment plays out and take seriously my role as a citizen in that process. As I consume the media related to the election lately, I keep hearing a simple phrase repeated:
(Candidate X) doesn’t has (or doesn’t have) the “Black” vote.
This phrase troubles me.
At best, this is an example of loose usage of language to describe data in an overly-simplistic and reductionistic manner. This happens all the time in the popular media as complex nuances of error margins and polling methodology are boiled down into a sound byte, absent the nuance, study limitations, and concern over the data literacy of the audience.
Indeed, the headline is not inaccurate. Analysis of polling data certainly shows trends in the cross-tabulations of the number of individuals who select “black” to indicate their “race” and their support for a particular candidate. However, while factually accurate, these reports often fail to note that the only way in which these cross-tabulations are formed is by forcing individuals to select from a half-dozen socially-constructed categories to describe their race that fail to accurately describe a complicated construct.
I do, of course, support one of the core intentions behind this type of reporting. Clearly, it is vital both morally and practically that all voices be heard in an election, especially when those voices are from groups that have been historically marginalized- and notably when the percentage of those who might self-identify in a category have been low in previous contests. For example, the population identifying as “black” in Iowa is approximately 3% and New Hampshire is 1%. So, pointing out that demographic changes in the electorate are coming in an upcoming state (e.g. 27% of the South Carolina population identifies as black) is highly appropriate.
This troubles me, however, because our inexact use of language preys on poor data literacy to reinforce the notion that there is homogeneity in the ideas and attitudes of a socially-constructed racial group. It feeds our lazy minds and doubles down on our internal heuristics. I believe we can do better in three specific ways.
- Identify the forced choice that separates the racial groups in a poll. These are not finite, clear-cut delineators between people. They are a socially-constructed and (often) dominant culture accepted set of options that at best oversimplify the complex and evolving concept of self-identification. Reporters should stop saying “Blacks say..” or, “Whites say..” and temper their language to describe those who “identify as” as a particular group. This subtle nuance may help draw attention to the inherent difficulty with these categorical descriptions and soften the reinforcement of harmful, historical characterizations that can be exacerbated by this type of reporting.
- Describe the variance that exists within groups, not just between them. An over-simplified headline stating that “X wins the Black vote” could mean the candidate received 51% of that vote or 100%. Descriptions should be more accurate and highlight the full range of responses from that group. This reinforces the notion that, while we use categories to simplify data analysis, we recognize (and value) homogeneity and diversity that lives within all groups.
- Incorporate mixed methodology to capture a deep understanding of what these votes mean. Given the complexity of racial selection, the history of this country, and the massive amount of rationale that one might base their selection upon, we need more qualitative data along with the quantitative to illustrate the complexity and diversity of these decisions. These data should embody the same amount of rigor applied to the collection of the qualitative polls, not just pull random quotes that support a narrative.
It is a big year for the United States and a great time to get engaged in political discourse. As we do, we should be rational, engaged consumers of the information sent our way and demand that it is presented in a way that moves us forward as a nation.