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What is in your Future?: Data Science & the Black Experience

posted Oct 26, 2018, 8:23 AM by Rahni Sumler   [ updated Oct 26, 2018, 8:27 AM ]
Winter is coming but memories of summer still linger.
I got to go to my first music festival this year, Afropunk in Brooklyn NY. It was an amazing experience of artists at various stages of their craft, small businesses, and non-profits: all people who are passionate about what they do. It was a really invigorating experience.
One non-profit that stood out to me was Black Futures, a nonprofit that created and is distributing the "Black Census".

Conjugal Condition of American Negros According to Age Periods, by W.E.B Du Bois at Atlanta University

Hand drawn population pyramid by W.E.B Du Bois  displaying the Conjugal Condition of American Negros According to Age Periods

Infographic hand drawn by W.E.B Du Bois. Obtained from the Library of Congress
This is a contiguous, spaciously organized population pyramid. In addition to age per population, it also includes martial status. The title in French is from the 1900 Paris Exposition, specifically the "The Exhibit of American Negroes". 
Any one can take the census and no personal data beyond what you want to give to remain connected to the organization is shared. What makes this census special is that it breaks down the 'black community' into the African Diaspora: all of the places where people of African dissent have settled. The community has never been a monolith, made up of a diverse range of experiences, creeds, and peoples; ergo, this survey is very thoughtful about identity.
However, this isn't the first recorded foray into black data science.

W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963), Sociologist and Data Scientist

In the early 1900s, W.E.B Du Bois was considered part of the black intelligentsia in the American South. Based out of Atlanta University in Georgia, he was a  sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and author. He also advocated for higher education and was concerned about this new population of freed peoples. The population was facing a lot of challenges at the time: exploitative working conditions like share cropping, mass murders of individuals, separation of families due to unemployment.
Du Bois then used data representation charts at the time to depict a lot of the realities at the time, such as, depicting the migration of black families from rural communities into urban ones, employment rates, household income.

The New Black Census: Snapshot of the African Diaspora

In comparison, the new Black Census continues in this spirit by asking questions about income, employment, career prospects. However, they also include questions about sexual orientation, identity, and political leanings. They also ask questions about what people want to see in the future and a choice of topics that are important to them. For me, of course, I was concerned about black-owned industry, something that Du Bois and fellow activists Booker T. Washington had disagreed over. While Du Bois was a proponent for higher education and the sciences, Washington advocated more for practical vocational skills. Both are required for a healthy community, but I personally feel that there is a gap in skilled labor in our community compared to others.


The brightest future, to me, is an actualization of industry in the African Diaspora. Goods can be drop shipped among players  in the continent of Africa, the Caribbean, and throughout the continental Americas, similar to how China drop ships goods. Grocers, for example, would address many of the food deserts in these communities.
In addition to goods, there would be more skilled labor in these communities: tailors, shoe makers, bakers. I feel this would allow more money to stay in the community, safeguarding against the negative effects of gentrification. 

What do you think the future looks like?

Regardless of what the future holds for us, asking questions about what the future looks like is the first step to solving today's problems. When Du Bois set out to create his infographics, he sought to depict the experience of a newly freed people and determine what the future should look like.
Join Black Futures as they collect data on what the hopes and dreams of the African Diaspora, of the people who are impacted by the African Diaspora, all of us.
Learn more and participate in the census here at Black Futures Lab.
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