Justice in Numbers? Statistics and Civil Rights in Postwar America

Michael McGovern

Michael McGovern is the 2020-2021 Albert M. Greenfield Research Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate at Princeton University

My dissertation, Justice in Numbers, tells the story of how organizations like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and NAACP Legal Defense Fund worked with social scientists in the post-civil rights era to mobilize computing for social justice—through surveys, standardized measures, and electronic databases. The success of their efforts, I argue, prompted liberals and conservatives alike to double down on "colorblind" justice and narrow definitions of racism as they brought their own quantitative tools and theories of human nature into debates over the meaning of equality. Following the legal campaigns against employment discrimination and the death penalty since the 1960s, I chart the precipitous rise and decline of effects-based arguments to prove racial discrimination in the courtroom. Groups like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and NAACP Legal Defense Fund invested in quantitative studies to expose the clandestine contours of structural racism. But as conservative judges raised the bar for what qualified as evidence of discrimination, these efforts to overcome resistance with rigor yielded rules and information systems that limited the scope of civil rights remedies, helping to define a standard of "formal" equality that ignored the deep roots of racism.

The project brings the methods and questions of the history of science to bear on the political history of race and rights in the modern United States. It also considers how legal thought and practice have been shaped by a changing culture of quantification. Looking across different domains of law and scientific disciplines reveals how legal and scientific concepts have shaped one another. In an era of calls for algorithmic fairness and to unroot bias in technology, we urgently need to understand how our very tools and frameworks have been shaped by encounters between the law and social science for social justice. Historians of science and technology can and should make vital contributions to this ongoing discussion.

University of Pennsylvania
In October of 2021, I began working with the papers of criminologist Johan Thorsten Sellin at the University of Pennsylvania Kislak Center. This collection gave me insights into the history of criminology in the 20th century, in particular just how much the pursuit of more accurate data—in collaboration with government agencies and police departments—drove the mission of this steadily growing field of inquiry and training. Sellin appears in my account as the author of what was the authoritative study of deterrence (or non-deterrence) and the death penalty, which quantitative scholars in the 1970s began to cast doubt on. I also came to this collection seeking material from Marvin Wolfgang, Sellin’s star student and frequent collaborator, who served as a key expert witness on NAACP Legal Defense Fund cases in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though I did not turn up as much on Wolfgang, the collection did provide an insight into just how involved Sellin was in capital punishment abolition, through both research and activism. It also revealed efforts by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration to create computerized systems for crime control and criminal justice and helped point me toward a new research topic on the measurement of juvenile delinquency during the 1930s. The relationship between criminology and the criminal apparatus is a complex one that scholars sometimes reduce to a legitimation complex. While these social scientists rarely questioned the premises behind criminal justice, they were major critics of prominent and harmful practices like relying on police encounters as a proxy for delinquency—theyargued that these numbers said more about racialized policing than any kind of "real" crime.

American Philosophical Society
In April of 2022, I visited the American Philosophical Society Library to look into the personal papers of prominent statisticians John W. Tukey and C. Frederick Mosteller. Back when I was still forming ideas for a dissertation project, I stumbled upon a folder about capital punishment in the finding aid of the Tukey papers, which solidified that there was a project to be found in my material. Mosteller’s papers gave me insight into the institutional history of statistical training programs as well as his policy collaborations, work that ranged from commissions to study the harms of anesthetics with statistical modeling to consultation with political figures like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Interestingly, Mosteller pursued a large project on the concept of "bias" in statistics. Tukey’s papers contained some files on his various involvement with legal issues, from Census undercounts to the American Statistical Association’s efforts to define parameters for statistical evidence to a death penalty case in New Jersey that forms part of my dissertation’s epilogue. These are important collections that speak to a variety of issues, and one of the goals of my work is to use legal controversies to give some traction to the more recent history of statistics.

Rockefeller Archive Center
Finally, in May of 2022 I finally returned to the Rockefeller Archive Center, having previously worked with the late Tom Rosenbaum to try and track down material on police science and criminal justice. The grant records of the Ford and Russell Sage Foundations did not disappoint, as these organizations were both major funders of efforts by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to pursue research that informed their antidiscrimination litigation. One of the most fascinating revelations in these files is the changing relationship between the LDF and the US Department of Justice, from allies in the 1960s to adversaries by the end of the 1970s. Moreover, I learned that the LDF kept funding inquiries into the discriminatory effects of psychological testing into the 1980s, when much of the doctrine informing antidiscrimination law was called into question. On the whole, "following the money" reveals the extent of the organization’s investment in survey research. The LDF is the organization at the center of my project, but archives are closed to researchers for the period I explore. These files have provided the most comprehensive inside look at its operations I have seen.


Work in these collections made an inestimable contribution to my project, which takes a broad look at how statistical civil rights litigation re-shaped debates about fairness, the public life of numbers, and the relationship between social scientists and the law. Understanding these litigation efforts from the ground up allows us to see how social justice organizations mobilized an ideal of scientific objectivity as a weapon against opposition and inaction, but that their successes turned into weaknesses as the other side learned the same tactics. This research contributes to existing conversations about Cold War scientific expertise which, as one historian has argued, reveal the limitations of the traditional theory-practice framework as well as narrower accounts of science in service of the state. Rather than the top-down diffusion of a particular style of reasoning or a discipline’s definition of discrimination, following struggles over the meaning of rights and numbers allows us to see how epistemic norms shifted along with institutions and political values.

My Consortum fellowship afforded me not only the financial resources to travel but also the influence and recognition necessary to secure appointments as archives with long backlogs of requests began to reopen after initial pandemic closures in 2020. More than that, the virtual community of fellows was a vital resource for my own professional development—not to mention my sanity, working in relative COVID isolation. The feedback I received on my project from other fellows helped shape the death penalty component of my project substantially and introduced me to colleagues who would ultimately invite me to contribute to workshops and other intellectual endeavors.

Looking ahead, I hope the Consortium will support projects like mine that do not fall within the "conventional" boundaries of the history of science, because our discipline is enriched by reaching outward. I see this orientation reflected in each new class of fellows, and this leaves me feeling excited and hopeful for the future.

Michael McGovern