Race and Words: Experimentation with Google Ngram

The Michael Dunn case one in a string of recent case that sparked the activism we see linked to #BlackLivesMatter.  As it took place in my hometown I was particularly aware of the collective disappointment around race and justice represented by the case. I shared the frustrations that conversation around that case and so many other like it failed to address the broader problem. Students approached me about the Dunn case and other any effort is always to try to provide some historical context around these issues.  I  discuss how a systematic prejudice linked to African Americans (especially males) in the public sphere allows violence against their persons.  I point out that the mechanisms that created and encouraged this way of thinking are greatly diminished, but the legacy persists. However, rather than rest on statements alone, I decided to illustrate my point using Google Ngram, a phrase-usage graphing tool integrated into Google Books. Below is a series of usage charts between words used as racial descriptors for African Americans such as negro, blacks, and colored and several American English words in books printed between 1800 and 2000. I omitted African American from the comparison because it came into use late in the 20th century. 



Google Ngram functions by searching millions of scanned texts. This tool shows the association between words over time.  Thus, the relationship between black and gun versus blacks and gun suggests a pattern of collective thinking shaping their use in printed material. The implication provides some window into comments from social critics.  Despite civil rights activism, racialized thinking links people of African descent to incivility. Based on that association, those that are inclined to do so can react violently against black people.  The case of Michael Dunn, Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, and countless of men and women rely on a spoken and unspoken claim of threat that provokes self-defense. We should pause to consider the dialogue around violence against people of color is rooted in a deeper societal narrative.  Police action merely affirmed what the collective narrative suggests, that black equates to dangerous.   Using that logic a rational white person faced with a black or brown person acting outside the strict bound of civility (whatever that may be) should fear bodily harm.  I hesitate to suggest a reversal of those circumstances would provide a different legal outcome (I leave it to your imagination). Instead, my goal, the best goal for anyone, is to consider the intersection of culture and history.  The words we use to tell our collective story point to an anti-black sentiment in the public sphere.  If we can raise awareness of the historical legacies that are influencing our contemporary,  perhaps we can overcome its effects.