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Perspectives on race, culture, and community.

Should social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin collect information about users' race and ethnicity?

If we pretend racial categories aren't real, will they go away?

So, apparently Facebook has figured out a way to predict user race/ethnicity. Which begs the question: Is this a good or bad thing?

There's a school of thought that the best strategy for dealing with the problem of racism is to stop paying attention to race.  The argument is basically that by paying attention to race and racial dynamics, we perpetuate the construct of race itself, giving it legitimacy it does not deserve. 

This argument is usually advanced by white neoconservatives, but this is not always the case, as evident in this interview with Morgan Freeman, who literally says that the answer to racism is that we have to "stop talking about it."

Now, I'm a big Morgan Freeman fan, but on this particular issue, I couldn't disagree with him more.  I think we need to keep talking about race. If anything, we're not talking about it enough, at least not about the things that really matter, like say educational inequities, health disparities, and our racially biased criminal justice system.

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I'm hardly alone in this point of view.  Here for example is an excerpt from the American Sociological Association's official statement on this topic, titled The Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Social Scientific Research on Race

Some scientists and policymakers now contend that research using the concept of race perpetuates the negative consequences of thinking in racial terms. Others argue that measuring differential experiences, treatment, and outcomes across racial categories is necessary to track disparities and to inform policymaking to achieve greater social justice.

The American Sociological Association (ASA), an association of some 13,000 U.S. and international sociologists, finds greater merit in the latter point of view. Sociological scholarship on "race" provides scientific evidence in the current scientific and civic debate over the social consequences of the existing categorizations and perceptions of race; allows scholars to document how race shapes social ranking, access to resources, and life experiences; and advances understanding of this important dimension of social life, which in turn advances social justice. Refusing to acknowledge the fact of racial classification, feelings, and actions, and refusing to measure their consequences will not eliminate racial inequalities. At best, it will preserve the status quo.

The ASA statement pretty much sums it enough for me.  Since when has ignoring a social problem made it go away?  Is there even one historical example of social change that was achieved, not by activism and struggle but by pretending the problem wasn't there?

To be sure, it is unlikely that we will ever associate Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin with racially progressive scholarship, but having these data available to social scientists would allow large-scale modeling of a variety of different online behaviors, including social networks.  As just one example, access to racial data would allow social scientists to better understand what contributes to racial segregation and, in turn, better understand the factors that might predispose racial inclusion.  With access to data, the possibilities for greater understanding and, ultimately, for social change, are limited only by our imagination. Without the data, we are left to wonder and, perhaps, to assume that virtual communities don't have the same racial dynamics and prejudices as the real world.  They do, of course -- online communities show the same patterns of racial segregation as are observed off line -- a fact that we know only because we have some racial data from the social media sites.

There is, I admit, some trust involved in taking this perspective.  We have to trust the social media sites not to use the data for nefarious purposes. Given our nation's history, I can certainly see why some may be reluctant to do so.  And yet, we do have laws protecting against discrimination and, laws aside, one can reasonably assume that the social media sites are profit-oriented and that they are more likely to increase profits by creating and maintaining a racially inclusive platform.

Ultimately, of course, though we can make reasonable guesses, we cannot be certain what the social media sites will do with the information.  Racial data are a tool. Like any tool or bit of information, there is always the possibility that it may be misused. 

I get that. But even so, despite Morgan Freeman's claim to the contrary, this is not actually a morally ambiguous question.  We live in a society in which race impacts people's lives in ways both profound and mundane. To ignore this reality, to pretend that it didn't exist or that its existence is not worth tracking and studying is to invalidate not just the experiences but the very lives of millions of Americans. Personally, I'd much rather see them as they are.

 

Authors note: This piece was originally written as part of an expert roundtable on this topic for the site Technicultr.  Additional expert perspectives on this question can be found here:

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For more racial analysis of news and popular culture, join the | Between The Lines |  Facebook page and follow Mikhail on Twitter.

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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