Essay #1 in the Data and Pandemic Politics series on data justice and COVID-19

In his 2003 canonical essay Cameroonian political theorist Achille Mbembe presented the concept of necropolitics, which suggests that the ultimate expression and exercise of sovereignty is “the power and capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.” Then over a decade later sociologist Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz advanced the concept of racial arithmetic, which refers to the use of ethnoracial data and statistics “by political actors to determine or justify the distribution of resources and rights.” Though these concepts were explored in different geographies, contexts and time periods, they are related and together can be used to explore and understand the relationship between the exercise of sovereign power and discretion, and structural conditions that produce racial disparities in the quality of life and mortality. Such insights are particularly necessary as the quality of life and rates of “excess death”,1 particularly in Black and Indigenous communities in the United States, have become a focal point of public attention and outcry as the COVID-19 global pandemic continues to wreak havoc on these communities and growing calls for racial justice remain unanswered.

In this essay, I will first explore how necropolitics and racial arithmetic are useful frameworks for understanding how government data practices contribute to racial disparities and harms in the United States. I will then review the practices of collecting, using and reporting ethnoracial data within the United States public health and policing sectors to explore how these practices have an outsized effect on the quality of life and often excess death of Black Americans.

To exercise sovereignty is the power to authorize and enforce what information is relevant and necessary to govern. This can be accomplished through laws, formal or informal policies, practices, and decision making that dictates what data about civilians can be collected — publicly reported (or otherwise accessible) — and how it can be used. In the United States, government control, discretion, and regulation over ethnoracial data and statistics is a particular exercise of sovereign power that constrains racial justice discourse and stymies necessary structural reform. Yet, this exercise of power and its attendant consequences also helps illuminate the connection between necropolitics and racial arithmetic in practice. Government practices over ethnoracial data and statistics are employed to justify or legitimize government argumentation and decision making regarding the distribution of rights and resources (racial arithmetic) and ultimately these decisions create structural conditions that determine the quality of life and mortality within the Black community (necropolitics). Public health and policing represent two extremes of these practices and consequences.

Ethnoracial Health Data

As COVID-19 reported cases and related deaths in the United States began to increase and outpace other nations, early data from local hospitals, researchers and only a few local health departments revealed that Black people were disproportionately dying. This led to a growing outcry from doctors, advocates, researchers, and community organizations for federal and state governments to publish race and ethnicity breakdowns of COVID-19 data. Yet, this demand for ethnoracial health data is not new or isolated to COVID-19. These ethnoracial data deficits have been a persistent problem within the United States contributing to growing racial disparities in health and mortality because without this information racial variations in health problems, access to care, quality of care, health outcomes, and other underlying concerns remain unknown, under-researched, and misunderstood. This ignorance coupled with the absence of data allows for racist explanations or narratives to prevail suggesting that health and mortality disparities are the result of biological, cultural or other factors innate to individuals and groups rather than evidence of the consequences of unequal structural conditions. These narratives exacerbate the problems created by the ethnoracial health data deficits because they can be leveraged by policymakers to justify racially disparate austerity measures, community divestment, underfunded research, and the lack of meaningful safeguards or enforcement against varied forms of medical discrimination, all of which have a negative impact on the quality of life of Black people. For example, Massachusetts’ initial guidelines for rationing ventilators and other critical care services during a potential surge of COVID-19 cases advised hospital staff to use a scoring system that significantly disadvantaged and deprioritized individuals with comorbid conditions that could impact long-term survival. Though these guidelines were issued to ensure equitable access to care and explicitly prohibited consideration of sensitive factors, like race, disability, gender, and ability to pay, policymakers seemed to ignore that BIPOC, poor people, and people with disabilities are more likely to have these underlying comorbid conditions and therefore less likely to receive necessary critical care and potentially die as a result of this policy. After immediate public outrage, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced it was revising the guidelines acknowledging that “poverty and racism can damage a person’s health.”

Research has identified several causes and contributors to ethnoracial health data deficits. Drivers of this problem include outdated information systems that make inclusion of new data categories costly as well as erroneous beliefs that federal or state laws prohibit the collection of race and ethnic data by health care providers, insurance companies, and local officials. Yet, even these impediments are tied to the exercise of sovereign power. For instance, it is the government deciding that the cost of upgrading information systems and practices to include the collection, use, and reporting of ethnoracial health data are prohibitive or not the priority of the public health agency. Thus, this myriad of choices that results in the lack of ethnoracial health data collection, use, and public reporting demonstrate how necropolitics and racial arithmetic are practiced in public health. The absence of this data and ignorance about the drivers of racial health disparities helps conceal and legitimize discriminatory practices and policies along with their attendant consequences that in turn worsen pre-existing structural and social inequities that have a negative impact on the quality of life of Black people and increase excess death.

Ethnoracial Police Data

COVID-19 stay-at-home orders kept more Americans at home and likely more plugged into news and current events, which presumably led to growing public awarness and outrage to the frequency and normalcy of state-sanctioned violence and murder of Black Americans by police, a necropolitical practice in itself. The public response led to greater scrutiny of the relationship between policing and precarity in Black communities, and ignited new urgency for systemic police reforms which had stagnated for decades due to sustained resistance from law enforcement and policymakers. Public discourse regarding the need for systemic police reform has been thwarted in part by law enforcement’s control of and resistance to publicly reporting and sharing ethnoracial police data that can ideally help rein in abuses of power and validate a growing body of research on the deleterious effects of policing on Black life.

Police routinely collect and use ethnoracial data. Race and ethnicity are common categories in police administrative forms and data sets. There are also many state and local laws that mandate the collection of these identity characteristics during police activities like traffic stops. Police also import this data into data analysis software, use it to inform routine practices and strategies, and share this data with other government agencies and officials. However, police have been resistant to reporting or sharing ethnoracial police data with the public. By controlling what information about policing is available to the public, police are able to avoid accountability by using selective data to obfuscate discriminatory and often deadly police practices and policies. This particular practice of necropolitics and racial arithmetic was most pronounced in the New York City Police Department (NYPD).

Though ethnoracial statistical analysis of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk data ultimately convinced a federal judge to rule the policy unconstitutional in 2013, it took over a decade of several lawsuits that incrementally compelled the NYPD to publicly release ethnoracial data to reach this verdict. After the 1999 murder of Amadou Diallo, the New York City Council passed the Police Reporting Law, which required the NYPD to produce annual reports including various details about its stop-and-frisk practices. Yet, shortly after the 2006 murder of Sean Bell, it was revealed that the NYPD failed to comply with this law and had not released data since 2003. In 2007, the NYPD released limited data and resisted public records requests seeking access to the entire stop-and-frisk database. Even though the NYPD shared this database with research groups at RAND and the University of Michigan, it took a lawsuit and subsequent court order for the department to release the database in response to a public records request, with a state judge noting “[t]he N.Y.P.D. has not offered any reason why the petitioner should be denied access to the same database which it has already shared with other outside organizations.” After this information was released publicly and following years of significant non-compliance with reporting requirements of a consent decree regarding oversight of its stop-and-frisk practices, a new class-action lawsuit was filed which eventually resulted in the aforementioned 2013 federal court decision.

Throughout this period, the NYPD used its control over stop-and-frisk data as a form of racial arithmetic. The NYPD and other government officials selectively used police administrative data to justify the department’s stop-and-frisk practices suggesting that “more stops meant less crime.” Yet, when the same data was eventually shared during litigation, it functioned as evidence that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy and practices were racially discriminatory. At the same time, the lack of meaningful oversight and accountability enabled by the NYPD’s subterfuge in withholding ethnoracial police data from the public embolden the practice of necropolitics. Stop-and-frisk practices alone can function as a form of necropolitics because these discretionary and often unreasonable police actions contribute to immediate or excess deaths of Black people. These circumstances are also worsened by the fact that police can act with impunity since the primary means of deterrence and redress are futile, which creates a reality where Black people are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than persons of other racial or ethnic groups.


These brief examinations of government practices regarding the collection, use and public reporting or sharing of ethnoracial data in the United States demonstrate how these exercises of sovereign power must be understood as instantiations of necropolitics and racial arithmetic. Government data practices in the public health sector represents one extreme where insufficient collection, use, and reporting of ethnoracial health data can disguise underlying problems and tacit discrimination that aggravate and hasten racial inequities and harms including excess death. Whereas, government data practices in the policing sector represents another extreme where ethnoracial police data is regularly collected and used within government, but rarely shared proactively with the public which obfuscates and normalizes negative differential treatment and outcomes experienced by Black people including disproportionate rates of death from police violence.

Rashida Richardson is a Visiting Scholar at Rutgers Law School and Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund. She researches the social and civil rights implications of data driven technologies, including artificial intelligence, and develops policy interventions and regulatory strategies regarding data driven technologies, government surveillance, racial discrimination, and the technology sector.

1 Excess deaths refers to the difference between the numbers of deaths observed in Black and other minority populations and the number that would have been expected if these populations had the same age- and sex- specific death rates as the white population. The concept was used to evaluate and characterize racial health disparities in the 1985 United State Department of Health and Human Services Task Force on Black and Minority Health Report, commonly known as “The Heckler Report”.

Suggested citation: Richardson, R. (2020, October 8). Government Data Practices as Necropolitics and Racial Arithmetic. Data and Pandemic Politics, 1.