Weaponized Study in a Moment of (Counter)Insurgency
by Dylan Rodriguez
“Weaponized Study in a Moment of (Counter)Insurgency” is the text of my 2020 ASA Presidential Address, belatedly presented at the 2021 Annual Meeting. This contribution is a modest attempt to identify, name, and praise the gathering force of the anti-American within and beyond the extended intellectual communities convened by American Studies. Along the way, the address overtly references and implicitly reflects the collective creativity of organizations and collectives that exemplify (queer, feminist, global) abolitionist, radical, anticolonial, Black liberationist, and emergent revolutionary forms of collective praxis. Resonating the spirit in which i offer “Weaponized Study,” i urge visitors to this edition of “Beyond the Page” to study, interact with, teach, materially support, and perhaps actively join in the work/art/worldmaking of these groups, among many others:
Who Counts? Radical Lessons from Ida B. Wells' Radical Statistics
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) is remembered as a civil and women's rights activist and an investigative journalist, who worked tirelessly to document and stop the lynching of Black Americans in the United States. Over four decades of activism, Wells published papers, conducted research, delivered speeches, marched, boycotted, and organized to fight against racial and gender discrimination in the form of lynching, voting rights, fair housing, and justice for African-American prisoners and military veterans. Her legacy is well-documented and, in recent years, has been publicly memorialized via a posthumous Pulitzer Prize; a reflection space at EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice; a national monument and festival in Bronzeville, IL; a mosaic art installation in Union Station; and even a Barbie doll. “Who Counts? Urgent Lessons from Ida B Wells’s Radical Statistics” argues for another essential but overlooked dimension of her work: her use of statistics to disrupt entrenched myths about lynching and to tell new stories about the victims of racial terrorism.
“Who Counts?” centers on Wells’s reframing of the Chicago Tribune’s annual compilation of lynching data and her own data collection, analysis, and case studies. In her anti-lynching pamphlets, she presents the data not by date, as the Tribune had done, but by alleged offenses – a recalculation that disproves the “old thread bare lie,” as Wells wrote, “that negro men rape white women” and foregrounds white mob violence as a form of social control based on capricious, unscrupulous charges. In her case studies, often drawn from her own investigative accounts, Wells details the setting and circumstances of specific “murders by mobs,” reanimating the lives of lynching’s victims that the numbers have come to represent.
[here could be a natural place to share Images 3 and 5 next to each other, or perhaps a sampling of the block quote from the Red Record on pgs. 15-16 of the manuscript, if appropriate].
Wells’s work serves as an important precursor to data-driven projects that track racial violence and inequity, including those of her contemporaries and successors, such as W. E. B. Du Bois’ sociological treatise The Philadelphia Negro (1899); Monroe T. Works’s The Negro Year Book (1912); The NAACP’s Thirty Years of Lynching in the U.S. 1889-1918 (1922); to more recent data collections of police shootings and state-sanctioned violence by the Equal Justice Initiative, the Washington Post, the Guardian’s series The Counted, and Mapping Police Violence, and to broader data justice initiatives such as Ruha Benjamin’s Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab, Yeshimabeit Milner’s Data for Black Lives, and Ibram X. Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research.
Ultimately, I see Wells’s statistical reporting as an important intervention in the history of social quantification and scientific racism as well as a model for what we now call data justice. Readers interested in learning more about the guiding principles of data justice will find a useful primer in Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein’s recent book, Data Feminism (2020), and can see these concepts realized in projects such as Giorgia Lupi’s work on data humanism and Mimi Onuoha’s Library of Missing Data Sets. These projects echo Wells’s call for a critical, humanistic approach to quantitative information and remind us, as she did, that what and who gets counted remains an urgent question.