Computing Civil Rights: A Data-Centered History of the EEOC

Michael McGovern, Princeton University

The Supreme Court case Griggs v. Duke Power (1971) made Title VII of the Civil Rights Act enforceable by providing justification for the demonstration of disparate impact of employment screening mechanisms on minorities through statistical evidence. As the doctrinal history goes, this brief window—in which statistical litigation was a dominant strategy for undoing racist metrics—was shut by Washington v. Davis (1976), which raised the evidentiary bar in employment suits to demonstrate discriminatory intent. Despite these changing legal fortunes, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has worked both as an advocacy group and a clearinghouse for discrimination data. While a number of historians have shown how employment cases were a hotbed for contesting the boundaries of civil rights, in this paper, I will provide an account of the EEOC as a site of knowledge production. In particular, the EEOC participated in a movement to modernize statistical analysis to demonstrate intent. Grappling with the history of statistics in modern America requires understanding how methods are inflected with the context of their use. Relying on fresh archival work on the EEOC’s efforts, this paper seeks to unpack the epistemology of rights-based litigation in a fracturing United States.

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 Presented in Session 81. Quantification, Data, and the Politics of Social Provision