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How W.E.B Du Bois Used Data Visualization to Create an Effective Argument

Four essential steps to effective persuasion.

W.E.B. Du Bois — Writer, sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was a well-known, writer, sociologist, historian, and civil-rights activist. Commonly known as W. E. B. Du Bois was born on Feb 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community. After completing his graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard — becoming the first African American to earn a doctorate — he became a professor of history, sociology, and economics at Atlanta University. While he is well known for his collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folks, he also pioneered the nation’s most sophisticated quantitative research on race and the black population. He led a team of university students to produce 60 full-color charts on how far the African-American community had advanced in less than half a century following the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1863.

W.E.B DuBois at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

The revolutionary graphics, now about 116 years old, depict what had changed for African Americans since slavery, in everything from education to income.

This collection of work was displayed at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The exhibit was organized by Thomas Junius Calloway and was successfully pitched to the U.S. government to be included at the international conference as part of its showcasing of its industrial and imperial prowess, as well as its commitment to social reform.

Du Bois used this invitation as an opportunity to contribute two unique sets of data visualizations to the American Negro Exhibit. Heading a team composed of students and alumni from Atlanta University, he created a collection of graphs, charts, maps, and tables that were generated from a mix of existing records and empirical data collected by his sociological laboratory at Atlanta University. The data visualizations stressed one narrative: the African American community had progressed since slavery.

Increasing land ownership by African Americans shows progression.

His colorful, hand-drawn illustrations showed that literacy rates for African Americans were rising and that African American ownership of property and land was increasing. African-American businesses were growing and so were the number of patents for inventions.

At the time, Social Darwinism — a prevailing theory based on the notion of survival of the fittest — was used to suggest that the Black race would soon become extinct due to its perceived inferiority. Du Bois instead presented statistical data showing that the Black population was increasing rather than decreasing — a direct contradiction to this popular theory.

The highest African American population was in Georgia in the early 1900s.

These data visualizations did not convey a utopian narrative about Black progress in a forward-looking, modern nation. Instead, they highlighted the gains made by African Americans in spite of systematic laws like Jim Crow, put in place to un-level the playing field for newly freed African Americans. Given all of the potential skepticism DuBois was going to face from his peers, he set out to present an argument that spoke for itself in hopes of effectively persuading the audience, or at the very least to show them a different view.

Based on Jay A. Conger’s article from the Harvard Business Review, “The Necessary Art of Persuasion”, effective persuasion becomes a negotiating and learning process through which a persuader leads colleagues to a problem’s shared solution.

There will be times in your career where you will need to convince people of an idea or position they don’t currently hold. This involves a process of framing the argument, presenting vivid supporting evidence, and finding the correct emotional connection with your audience. The four essential steps to effective persuasion according to Conger are:

1. Establish credibility.

While Du Bois’ achievements and accreditations should have established him as a thought leader in his field, this was not enough for those who held Social-Darwinist beliefs. In addition to his credentials, he leveraged data sources like the U.S. Census data, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and various government reports. Credibility grows out of expertise and relationships. The more skilled you are about a topic or skill the easier for your audience to accept you and your work. Relationships and networking also help. Whether you work for a certain company or studied at a particular school, these affiliations add or detract from how you are perceived.

2. Frame goals in a way that identifies common ground with those you intend to persuade.

The first set of infographics created for the exhibit used the state of Georgia to represent the Black population across the country. Georgia represented the U.S. state with the largest African American population at the time. Du Bois and his team used Georgia’s diverse and growing Black population as a case study to demonstrate the progress made by African Americans since the Civil War. Presenting this data on a state level helped position the exhibit for the second set of infographics, which displayed growth on a national level. When framing a position make sure it appeals strongly to the audience you are trying to persuade. Given this was an international conference, Du Bois and his team made sure to make comparisons of literacy rates, for example, between African Americans and European countries to establish context.

3. Reinforce your position using vivid language and compelling evidence.

To make their contribution to the American Negro Exhibit captivating, Du Bois and his Atlanta team decided to produce hand-drawn graphs, charts, and maps arrayed in lively, vibrant colors punctuated by artistically intersecting lines. Bar data contained blocks of contrasting colors documenting the Black experience. They also included photographs to complement their work. However, the art did not distract from science; it served to reinforce the comprehensive scientific data chronicling the African American Journey. When presenting an argument it’s important to supplement numerical data with examples and stories to make your position come alive.

4. Connect emotionally with your audience.

Alongside the Georgia study’s data visualizations and photo albums, Du Bois included a three-volume, handwritten compilation of the Black Codes of Georgia, stretching from the slave codes of the colonial and antebellum period to the segregationist policies and laws of the present. This produced a much more complicated narrative about the significance of these images. This presentation evokes emotion by showing the perseverance of a subset of American people which reflects kindly on the strength of the U.S. as a whole.

Looking back to his years at Atlanta University in his 1968 Autobiography, Du Bois wrote that he viewed the contribution of the infographics to the Paris Exposition as an opportunity to display the work of the Atlanta School of Sociology to the “thinking world.” He noted, “I got a couple of my best students and put a series of facts into charts.” He and his design team used clean lines, bright colors, and a sparse style to visually convey the growing population of African Americans and their gains since the abolishment of slavery to persuade their audience. An audience that, in general, used Social Darwinist theories of civilization to justify a belief that Europeans and Anglo-Americans were superior to non-white peoples.

Conger notes that the most valuable lesson learned about persuasion is there’s just as much strategy in how you present your position as in the position itself. He further notes that the strategy of presentation is the more critical of the two. In my own experience, I thoroughly agree with Conger that how you present your argument is more important than the argument itself. I’ve had many business situations where supporting your proposal with data to show incremental growth or financial viability was key in gaining sign-off from senior management. In Du Bois’s case, his exposition was a way to address a potentially emotionally charged topic in an intellectual way. One that catered to his peers and colleagues.


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