Playing the Numbers Game

“It’s a numbers game, but shit don’t add up somehow
Like I got, 16 to 32 bars to rock it
But only 15% of profits ever see my pockets like
69 billion in the last 20 years
Spent on national defense but folks still live in fear like
Nearly half of America’s largest cities is one-quarter black”

Mos Def, Mathematics

Last year, the Notification Centre for Online Discrimination received 652 complaints of online discrimination—an increase of 50%. The year before, the centre received 305 complaints. What does a ‘rise’ in online racist incidents mean? And for whose benefit are these figures being produced? What does it mean to monitor the ‘flow’ and ‘fluctuations’ in racist incidents? What kind of work does ‘measuring racism’ do? What does it mean to think of racism as something that is measurable, quantifiable? And do these numbers tell us anything about the workings of racialisation? The act of measuring reduces racism to something other than what it is. We must interrogate the kind of work that measurements, degrees of comparison, and comparative superlatives (as in “racism is becoming much worse,” or “things are getting worse and worse”) do.

In order to get an understanding of what facts and statistics do rather than say, we have to situate the production of facts and statistics in a wider context of knowledge production in Dutch academia. In their essay Designs and (Co)Incidents, Philomena Essed and Kwame Nimako note that Dutch minority research “mostly (but not always) problematiz[es] ethnic minorities while generally downplaying the influence of racism, the ramifications of the colonial history, and concomitant presuppositions of European (Dutch) civil and cultural superiority.” The Dutch minority research machinery spits out reports and statistics, that shape policies. These reports are the product of enumerative practices, that concern themselves with how many?, rather than analytic practices which ask why? Essed and Nimako tell us that why is rarely asked. Instead, “[r]esearch is largely about ethnic minorities […] about their migration and their degree (or lack) of economic, social and political integration in the Netherlands.” Research on people of colour builds on a White Dutch infrastructure “where policy, party politics, and research intertwine.”

In a context in which the concept of institutional racism is still treated as a myth and the experiences of Black people are discredited or downplayed, the statistics generated by the Notification Centre for Online Discrimination provide Black people with a reasonable and ‘objective’ basis to argue the reality of anti-black racism. Measuring ‘racist incidents’ is a way to translate the violence of racism into workable terms. However, this demand for a workable formula and unequivocal proof trains our eyes to focus “much more on taxonomy than politics.” A failure or refusal to provide incontestable proof—in the form of recognizable acts of commonly held assumptions about what is racist—will lead to instances where if you cannot, or will not, provide factual evidence (someone said, or did, something racist), then what took place mustn’t have been racist, at all. The result is that fewer credible victims is taken to mean fewer culpable perpetrators. As such, anti-Black racism is considered real and intelligible only insofar as it is contingent and visible, measurable and detectable. Racial violence, however, “is not about objective measurable physical and social characteristics.” Tabulating violent acts and violations scales down and reduces racial violence to a quantifiable variable, and presents it as temporally closed off—rather than a logic that positions populations differently in relation to (economic) resources.

At this point, it should be indisputable that there are inequalities in the Dutch political, educational, judicial and legal systems, and in the housing and labour market. Countless state reports with facts and statistics about racial inequality have been produced, and yet Black people are still expected to ‘prove’ the reality of structural racism. We suffocate under the weight of evidence. And the expectation that we attend, underneath that burden, to the White demand for detectable and ‘unambiguous’ proof, in the face of racial violence that is gratuitous and structural, is perverse. Even when the evidence presented is unambiguous (when something recognizably racist has taken place), it is still made subject to argument.

The persistent White demand for more ‘proof’ raises a number of concerns when read alongside the Black demand for freedom. What are the dynamics of this alongside? If the identification of racism and racial hurt depend not only on recognizable acts, but also on the presence of a pained Black body, then the identification of racism puts a strain on the Black interior—“that is black life and creativity behind the public face of stereotype and limited imagination.” Speaking on her experiences with White feminists, Doreen Hazel, a Black Dutch womanist theologian, expressed her anger at the expectation that “black women should constantly display the pain of racism.” The White demand for ‘proof’ is a demand for Black people to make their pain, their most intimate feelings, and thoughts available to Whiteness. More ‘proof’ speaks of a certain desire for Black people to make anti-Black racism ‘accessible’, so ‘unknowing’ Whites might ‘know what it’s like’. Blackness, then, becomes legible through trauma, taxonomies, facts, and statistics—Blackness constitutes a body of evidence. Thus, within this dynamic, “observation and taxonomies of facts and statistics take precedence over introspection, musing, and reflection.” Katherine McKittrick tells us in Mathematics Black Life that “blackness arrives through the ordinary, proved, former, certified, nearly worn-out archives of ledgers, accounts, price tags, and descriptors of economic worth and financial probability.” Black life is often still written into the political landscape by way of calculations. To think of Black people is “to think of statistics, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence.” And these ‘truths’ about Black people are circulated by mainstream media without offering a broader analysis of what the use and proliferation of such ‘facts’ and figures bring into being.

The use of numbers and statistics, that are generated by state apparatuses, to make Black life and death legible only as accumulation abstracted from White supremacy and anti-Blackness pose a problem for “the calculation of black humanity.” It relies on the quantification of Blackness as pathology—by which I mean the data gathering practices of the state and the police (practices that are passed off as ‘objective’) that lend more weight to the violence that both founds and preserves Blackness as pathology. What numbers and figures often mystify is how anti-Black social interests determine what is researched, what kind of data is gathered, which pieces of information describe the issues, or are served as factual evidence.

The Central Bureau of Statistics issued a report stating that Antillean and Aruban men in the Netherlands are thirteen times more likely to be the victim of murder than White Dutch men. Why was this specific numerical data about “the condition of Antillean and Aruban men” generated? What does this kind of information do—apart from seemingly confirm the ‘truth’ that Antilleans are more violent? Glenn Helberg, chairman of a consultation body representing Dutch Caribbeans, (OCaN) argued that the many murders among the Antillean and Aruban Dutch are directly related to drug trafficking and the demand for drugs in the Netherlands. Helberg admitted that over all these years he still does not know what the CBS research on Dutch Caribbeans proves, or “what these numbers say.” Facts and figures become the only ways that we might come to know Black people. What do we lose when our experiences are only known, or intelligible, through statistics—when measurement is the predominant way to understand Black life?

I want to return to the question of what state reports that lay bare racial inequality do. State reports, statistics, ciphers, figures, records, and accounts in themselves do not produce ‘truth’ about, nor do they give us complete insight into, the lived realities of structural racism—the destabilizing effects of stress, anxiety, disappointment, depression. How many reports does it take for the realities of structural racism to register? State reports that document racial inequality are part of minority research industry. These reports, perhaps unintentionally, fortify a political system that necessitates racial inequality while giving the impression that something is being done—that is (more) numbers and facts are being generated.

In spite of a mountain of reports, the Dutch government is still to take any substantial action against structural racism. In fact, Prime Minister Mark Rutte suggested in an interview that the ball is in our court: he urges us to ‘fight our way in’. Rutte states that,

“One of the things I have learned is how impactful discrimination is. It still occurs frequently in the Netherlands and it really matters whether your name is Jan or Mohammed when you are applying for a job. I have thought about that and came to the conclusion that I can’t fix this. The paradox is that the solution lies with Mohammed. I can say to the Netherlands: ‘Please do not discriminate, judge someone on their character and knowledge’. But if it does happen, Muhammad has a choice: give up due to an insult, or continue. Newcomers have always had to adapt and they have always had to deal with prejudice and discrimination. You should fight your way in.”

Rutte’s solution to racial oppression is telling: in order to ‘move beyond’ racism, people of colour simply need to adjust their attitude and outlook! Here, Rutte follows the popular understanding that the resolution of racism requires (from those who face racism) hard work, an attitude adjustment, and the drive to develop resilience capacities. Not only does he push responsibility away from his government (which designs and implements racist policies) and civil society (which serves as a factotum of the state), but he also places the onus of ‘progress’ squarely, though dolefully, on racially marginalized people. His statement makes racial inequality, which he equates with ‘being insulted’, appear, due to an a-historical understanding of ‘prejudice’ and ‘discrimination’, unfortunate. Black people are expected to fight our way into “a social world that, in effect, takes no responsibility for the options available.”

Even though racism is increasingly discussed in terms of its structural and material features generally, it is still predominantly understood as an ‘individual case’ specifically. Racism isn’t recognized as a material structure of the Enlightenment, modernity, capitalism, and democracy. Rather, racism is imagined as an ‘inherently human flaw’, a tangible thing locatable ‘out there’, that surfaces unexpectedly and unintentionally in, for example, policies and the dispositions/behaviours of ‘other people’—it is rarely understood as “a political project that emerged under specific conditions within the context of the European nation-state” and shapes the intimate politics of everyday interactions. “White supremacy is,” as Joseph Pugliese writes, “a priori the exercise of violence through the diffuse iteration of everyday practices.” Thus, whether a White person wants “an unequal distribution of money, power, rights and privileges,” or not, is beside the point—if we take White supremacy, of which racism is a synecdoche, to be a political system, then the question whether a White person wants an unequal distribution of resources is irrelevant.

And yet, there is a need to find a point of origin for anti-Black racism on which claims of racial hurt can be grounded—as though, anti-Black violence is contingent. In the search for points of origin, anti-Black violence is reduced to a measurable and quantifiable variable that seemingly operates independent of structures. If we take anti-Blackness to be constitutive of the category Human, western democracy, and its idea of freedom and justice, then the conundrum that Black people face might read as what does it mean, as a Black person, to ‘overcome’ racial barriers, or ‘fight your way into’ an anti-Black world? Or, to put it differently, what does it mean to desire, as a Black person, a place in a world that positions you “in certain ways structurally, constitutively, at odds with modern notions of the human”? This paradox is paradigmatic of the position of the Dutch Caribbean in European Netherlands who, while enjoying the rights of full citizenship is also positioned as yet another of the many unwanted immigrants in the Dutch ‘immigration problem’.

We must interrogate the idea that ‘hard work’ somehow mitigates constitutive anti-Black violence, and grants us access to full humanity. Of course, happy and hopeful narratives of hard-working people of colour who endure in the face of White supremacy and manage to ‘overcome’ racial barriers leave open, if not actively promote, the possibility to see the Netherlands as a, perhaps, deeply flawed democracy but nonetheless one that offers possibilities for rehabilitation, progress, and ‘success’. However, my question then is: what does it mean to be ‘successful’ as a person of colour within an ableist White-supremacist-cisheteropatriarchal-capitalist structure? The terms of ‘success’ are inherently ableist, classist, gendered, and racialized. Mos Def said it poignantly in Mr. Nigga, “If white boys doin’ it well, it’s success / When I start doin’ it well, it’s suspect.” The pathway to ‘success’ is not equally available nor accessible to all and some of use might not even want to work or produce. If ‘success’ means a neoliberal, individualized freedom that depends on gender, racial, ableist, classist hierarchies that delimit which lives are understood as ‘worth living’ or what a ‘comfortable life’ looks like, then I do not want any part of it.


In an interview with Charles H. Rowell Edgar Cairo, speaking on the social circumstances of Black people in the Netherlands, noted,

“When I speak about blacks in this country, in Holland, in Western Europe, I’m talking about people who mostly are in a good situation, have a car, have a place to stay. So generally we don’t think we belong to the have-nots. There’s an upper-class of skilled black people. And most of us black people here have a reasonable social position in terms of either working or getting money from the government. We don’t die of being hungry. We suffer discrimination. But still it’s not like forty years ago in Suriname where, even in your own country, you as a black were considered less than a dog…”

What work does a statement such as “it’s not like forty years ago” perform? Comparing our current situation to a situation in the past might seduce us to believe that the Dutch state has become ‘kinder’ and ‘friendlier’ and more ‘just’. Or in other words, such a comparison might seduce us to quantify and weigh violence. The assertion that the Dutch state is now ‘gentler’ only holds if you consider racial violence in terms of “a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is event focused, time focused, and body bound,” which doesn’t account for the cumulative build-up of psychological stress due to oppression. Our material conditions may have changed, but our structural position hasn’t.

Does material improvement equal liberation, though? Now still, the general consensus in ‘the Black movement’ in the Netherlands is that ‘we’ don’t have it that bad—save some inconveniences such as racism and perhaps maybe sexism and homophobia ‘our lives’ are all right. But what are the conditions that make this “reasonable social position” possible? What does it mean to experience (relative) ‘material comfort’, or desire it, within the current economic system? Sylvia Wynter tells us that “you cannot have a middle class as the norm of being human without the degradation of what is not the middle class, which is the working class, and the jobless,” or to put it into common Dutch political vernacular: ‘kansarmen’ (noun, meaning those who are poor in opportunities). Our current understanding of ‘progress’ or ‘success’ in terms of ‘material comfort’ emerged through the same relations and practices of “property, possession, and exchange” that branded African peoples neger. Stuart Hall, too, draws our attention to the dynamics of race- and class-making. Hall writes that “the structures through which black labour is reproduced […] are not simply ‘coloured’ by race: they work through race.” Race and racism are central to “all the relations which affect black labour. […] Race is thus the modality in which class is ‘lived’, the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through’.”

The norm of White supremacy has been inscribed into the very workings of the economic system. As such, both ‘progress’ and ‘success’ are defined over and against those who are “narratively condemned.” Words such as ‘kansarm’ (read: working-class, poor, neuroatypical, disabled, Black, people of colour, single mothers), ‘kansrijk’ (read: upper middle-class, White, affluent, able-bodied, neurotypical), or ‘risicogroep’ (‘at risk groups’), which are used as a shorthand for the assigned economic and social value of certain populations, orient us toward the world of statistics and probability and aren’t generally linked to structural economic inequalities. The kans (chance) in ‘kansarm’ and ‘kansrijk’ strongly implies that ‘accident’—either karmic ‘misfortune’ or ‘cosmic luck’—determine one’s social position. You are ‘kansarm’ because you have ‘failed’ to realize your full potential, or take advantage of, the ‘ample opportunities’ that ‘we’ have in Europe.

The usual political response to ‘kansarmen’ (noun plural, meaning persons who are poor in opportunities) has been to create increments of opportunity, that is kansen creëren (‘creating more chances’), or by bettering the chances of ‘kansarmen’—not by pursuing economic justice, but by cultivating the capacities of ‘the poor’. The resolve to create more opportunities is animated by a neoliberal governmental rationality that places the range of problems that ‘kansarmen’ face outside the realm of the political by interpreting them as the consequences of ‘personal failings’ that can be mitigated, if not wholly prevented, through technocratic solutions and personal development. However, some bad things happen to people not because of happenstance, but because of structural forces. These bad things happen in a fairly consistent and predictable manner and are the outcome of deliberate political and economic strategies. “Human fate,” in the words of legal scholar Ian Haney López, “still rides upon ancestry and appearance.” Kansarm is one of the many ways of explaining the delimitation of Black life as a result of ‘having been dealt a bad hand by fate’, rather than, say, neoliberal policies. Neoliberalism is a class as well as racial and gendered project, and its language of privatization has created a “sticky association” between ‘kansarm’ and Black and woman and public aid.

Even though, able-bodied White Dutch people also face the risk of being labelled ‘kansarm’, they are generally not considered a drain on public resources. Questions such as “how much does an Allochtoon cost?” serve to frame people of colour as the primary and particularly costly drain on public resources. For instance, Black people are framed as stubbornly ‘kansarm’, as financial liabilities, as having a life that is statistically foreclosed—an interpretation that betrays the persistent image of worthlessness conferred on Black life under conditions of capitalism. In the capitalist calculus the neger functions as a unit of measurement, a theoretical value, which is—and I’m thinking here of Hortense Spillers—taken into “account” only as a quantity. Black people are marked and captured by numbers. Within the ruling order of knowledge Black people are numbers. We can trace this connection back to “the vertical columns of accounts and ledgers.” Research on slavery, for instance, concerns itself mostly with the profitability of slavery or the supposed lack thereof, and the numbers of enslaved Africans the WIC transported to the Americas—not with Black life. Katherine McKittrick remarks that “archival numerical evidence puts pressure on our present system of knowledge by affirming the knowable (black objecthood) and disguising the untold (black human being).”

Most of the talks on diversity centre on getting more people of colour into historically White institutions. Right now, diversity is understood as a numbers game. The emphasis that is now placed (in certain quarters) on percentages and statistics has led to a framework where ‘equality’ is interpreted in terms of ‘proportionality’, which imagines people of colour being allotted what is ‘fair’ based on their numbers. The goal is to change the percentage of people of colour in leadership positions so that it mirrors the percentage of people of colour in society. However, why set ‘proportional representation’ of people of colour as the end goal—without interrogating the structures and relations of power? Proportional representation will not and does not mean the end of racism.

What ‘proportionality’ obscures is the fact that population composition (the percentage of the population that is of colour) is in itself determined by racist, sexist, and classist (immigration) policies. Population composition, as such, is not ‘neutral’; it is influenced (among other things) by immigration and asylum policies and (state management of) fertility rates. The logic of ‘proportionality’, for example, was a guiding calculus in the Dispersal and Concentration policies [i], which were “used by the Dutch government to spatially concentrate or disperse ethnic minorities.” Proportionality cannot be taken outside of the context of gendered, racist, sexist, classist immigration policies—nor recent calls for compulsory abortions and contraception for disabled people, sex workers, and ‘Antillean teen mothers’. Concerns about the composition of the population also surface in the above-cited interview with Mark Rutte. Rutte asserts in ridiculously alarmist rhetoric that “[t]his is about the future of the Netherlands! Do you see these children carry the future of the country?” His ‘concern’ speaks not only to White anxieties about a changing demographics, but also to whether Allochtonen can actually ensure the continuation of the nation(-state).

One of the primary objectives of governing authorities is to manage and control persons by documenting and categorizing them. We should not invite agents of the state to think along with us and offer ‘solutions’ as to how to ‘fight racism’. In 1984, Tansing Partiman of the Frantz Fanon centre put it best when he said that “racism is not a matter of incidents that you simply have to combat. The organizations participating in the [anti-discrimination centre] structurally share the responsibility for the current iteration of racism. For us, liberation is more important than just combating racism.” Black freedom means reconsidering the tools the state and civil society use to locate Black people, and measure ‘improvements’ in our material condition. State generated statistics help institute and reproduce our status as society’s expendables. A commitment to Black freedom means acknowledging that ‘improvements’ within this order might offer ‘material comfort’, but these ‘improvements’ themselves do not signal freedom.

How would our ideas of Black freedom change “if we take seriously,” following Paul C. Taylor, “the mountains of evidence that to racialize human life as black is to put it in certain ways structurally, constitutively, at odds with modern notions of the human”? What if we centre ontological sovereignty? As Sylvia Wynter reminds us placing the issue of ontological sovereignty at the heart of our freedom dreams requires us “to move completely outside our present conception of what it is to be human, and therefore outside the ground of the orthodox body of knowledge which institutes and reproduces such a conception.” A move that places us at odds with the narratives and ‘solutions’ being generated by the nation-state and its bureaucratic apparatus. Black freedom requires nothing short of a complete overhaul of how society is structured. It requires dismantling the infrastructure that leads to the subjugation of Blackness.

[i]  EU governments negotiated a quota system to disperse refugees across the EU:

2 thoughts on “Playing the Numbers Game

Comments are closed.