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You Can’t Unsee It

Have you seen the new New York Times’ interview with Jon Stewart? I wasn’t a huge fan of “The Daily Show” — while the most amusing shooting of barreled fish ever done, it still seemed to me shooting of barreled fish — but here’s a Stewart quote from the interview that sticks with me:

The police are a reflection of a society. They’re not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the black community. They’re enforcing segregation. Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas. We have that so that the rest of us don’t have to deal with it.

It sticks with me because it’s well drawn, and because of the videos of George Floyd’s murder, of course. But also because I read Ben Thompson’s recent essay “Dust in the Light” and can’t stop thinking about what that piece helped me see. Both the Floyd videos and “Dust in the Light” visualize an aspect of American racism — in Floyd’s case, the brutality of that border patrol, and in Thompson’s case, the infrastructure of that border — that interlock to hit me with uncommon force. That reveal for me something I can’t unsee and can’t look away from.

Thompson’s “Dust in the Light” builds off a seminal 2016 blog post by journalist Lew Blank that mapped inequity in Madison, WI. Blank mixed data, visualization and narrative to make you begin to see the components of structural racism and how they have fit together to entrap Blacks in Madison into what Blank called “The Crescent” — a semi-circle from southwest to northeast, in and around the city limits, in which Madison’s Black and Hispanic populations are hyperconcentrated.

Blank unfurls a series of maps that, dataset by dataset, build the case that Black segregation in The Crescent isn’t a choice but a fate, reflected by and constructed out of the overlapping disparities of poverty, hunger, inferior education, reduced incomes and incarceration. Blank’s maps connect like links in a prison fence. The Crescent, they reveal, has:

  • All of the 23 schools in Madison that have above average usage of free/reduced lunch programs;
  • All Madison schools with below-average reading proficiency rates; and
  • The addresses of 600 of the 675 people either in a Dane County jail or serving home detention, as of a date in 2015.

Blank also notes that a Black child in Madison in 2011 was 13 times more likely than a white child to be born into poverty.

To this narrative Thompson adds another map: one of Madison’s “neighborhoods of risk” first put out by FDR’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which codified mortgage red-lining in the United States. The “neighborhoods of risk” map fits The Crescent perfectly:

A close up of a map

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A close up of a map

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“Once you see the crescent,” Thompson writes, “you can’t unsee it.” And once you see the crescent, you can see just one of its components elsewhere — for example, this video of the growth in racial covenants across Minneapolis’s in the early- and mid-20th century — and you see the story underneath it, as well as the stories that follow.

You no longer need a leap of imagination to understand why Wisconsin and Minnesota have some of the biggest Black-white disparities in the United States between math scores, school suspensions, bachelor’s degrees, unemployment rates, median household income, household poverty rates, homeownership rates, incarceration rates and infant mortality rates. We’ve seen all of it mapped onto people’s neighborhoods, as hard to remove as a tattoo. We already know, even before Thompson marks the spot where Floyd died, on the map of Minneapolis’s racial covenants, that he died outside those covenant neighborhoods.

Three weeks ago, relatively few white Americans would have agreed with Stewart’s quote. Today, far more might. But will they continue to do so? When their shame and guilt cool about the Floyd videos, will they understand the history and data behind what Stewart is saying? The interlocking practices over decades and decades that have led us to the 8’ 46” that killed Floyd? Will they still see the need for decisive action?

For every single piece of data — for instance, this study showing DC police stop and frisk Blacks six times more than they do whites — there is a countervailing argument (Glen Loury, for instance, arguing that “racism is an empty thesis” to explain disproportionate numbers of Black arrests in the United States). People are stubborn, and averse to unpleasant news. And even if we are receptive to an individual study’s message, we don’t have the time and/or skills to connect the dots between new papers and existing literature, or to determine whether new research can be trusted.

That’s why research-based experts — can’t — settle for just communicating new paper after paper. Our audiences need us to create new ways of seeing — new anchors, new lenses.

Ways of seeing so powerful that we can’t unsee them going forward.