Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ngram 150th: Race, Sex and Big Data

Data is powerful in the right hands. Aggregate data is even more powerful. And Google is data.

One of the odder tools in the Google arsenal is the Ngram viewer a search engine which charts trends within the folds of Google Books' database. Punch in anything. I mean it. Try anything in the Ngram search engine and start falling down the historical trends rabbit hole.

Cross the power of big data with where my mind has been drifting of late here in Southern Pennsylvania, and you can start to see the birthpangs of modern racist dogma.

Wait, what?

With the Ku Klux Klan once again threatening to protest something or other here in Gettysburg, I've been thinking of that perennial bugaboo wielded by racists like a cudgel: miscegenation.

The argument is simple, especially when the Klan or other white supremacists employ it. In essence, and put in kind words which hate-mongers would likely pepper with expletives and slurs, any non-white man will defile the white daughters of America. In this upcoming protest, it looks like the boogieman will be Latino immigrants.

But the source of this age-old scare tactic might be something pure, something lovely, something fundamentally good: the Emancipation Proclamation.

Look at that Ngram above.

As racists and bigots grasped for straws in the aftermath of Lincoln's Proclamation, desperately trying to find a reason black men shouldn't find freedom, they played on an innate fear. What man doesn't want to protect his wife? His daughter? His sister? If the black man was made free, the nascent argument grew in a sharp spike in 1864, insatiable lust for white women would take over.

Sex sells. And the argument employed by Copperheads in 1864 and 1865, the argument employed by the opponents of the Radical Republicans throughout Reconstruction, was pure sex.

It was at its core a stupid, bigoted argument. It was the last resort of a group of destructive bigots doomed to failure. And yet, that hasn't stopped the term "miscegenation" from climbing steadily up the Ngram ladder since 1863. 150 years of the last resort argument, still alive today.

Emancipation brought freedom. But freedom meant continued struggle. And the struggle continues today.

Welcome to the sesquicentennial of the advent of modern hatred; that's one anniversary I surely won't be celebrating.

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