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.”

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