Dear Mommy and Daddy,I decided to work for SNCC…Last summer, I used to watch civil rights demonstrators in Greenwood, Mississippi, on television. I used to cry because I know I should be there. But I also cried because I was relieved to find people trying to change what I thought was unchangeable….You see I thought that the people in those demonstrations on television were extraordinary people like Martin Luther King Jr. but they are ordinary college kids and old people.Yes, Daddy, I am brainwashed like you said; brainwashed by the fact that I’m black and I have nothing to lose in this fight against the chains that bound me and my people. Going to college, living in a comfortable house, having clothes, even being able to get a job in New York is not going to change the fact that I’m a black girl in a white man’s country and I have nothing to lose by fighting racism. Sure I can teach in New York, but that isn’t enough. The system is corrupt all over. It shortchanges the Negro and Puerto Rican kids and provides better schooling for the white kids. If I taught I could change one school, one classroom. But in the movement I can help bring about more basic changes which can allow me to go back to the South that I love and live there with my friends, white and black, building a new world and living a life with meaning…this is what I went to college for…I was a history major because I wanted to make as well as teach history.Barbara Jones Omolade’s letter reminds us that the successes of King were built by the scaffolding of thousands of people who were LinkedIn into a network of hope, who refused to settle for cynicism. Who refused to allow their towns, their schools, their colleges and universities, their government settle for the narrow-minded interest of the status quo. The women, the deacons, the disabled, the timid, the outcasts, the poor, those with unpopular views that had made them outcasts in their own communities participated in a national hackathon for justice and the world has never been the same.Barbara Jones Omolade, “Building a New World” in Hands on the Freedom Plow, p.388-392.
In January of this year, David Auerbach wrote a very interesting article in Slate entitled, “The Code We Can’t Control.” The article was part review of Frank Pasquale’s Black Box Society. Summarily, both of these works urge us to more carefully consider our assumptions that computers are incapable of perpetuating racism and bias. To some extent both of these works illustrate that while computers do not create racial prejudice, the implicit biases of programmers are responsible for that, computers can perpetuate and contribute to racism by digitizing the logic of discrimination.
Auerbach provided several examples from a recent study by Latanya Sweeny on Google Ad Words that illustrate his previous concerns as well as those of Pasquale. The fact that computers are complicit tools in maintaining a racist architecture urges us to also consider alternatives to our current virtual and physical realities. If in fact computers can be programmed to perpetuate racist structures, we can also program them to perpetuate anti-racist approaches. the same Google ads that serve up arrest records for “black-identified” names can also be used to redirect racists to resources that challenge their misconceptions. Of course this would fundamentally challenge the idea of search. The purpose of search is to effectively list what you are looking for not necessarily what you need. Or is it? At least we assume, it is. Should Google or any other search engine be in the business of social engineering? In short, the answer to that question is yes. Big data search has long been involved in that enterprise from nudging you to buy movie tickets, re-ranking recommended sites, serving ads based on your unique history, etc. I think the more appropriate question that we should be asking is why do we view a digital intervention to circumvent racial discrimination as unorthodox while we readily accept other forms of social engineering. The answer to this question is deeper than search engines or algorithms.
The way to reverse racism in the digital universe depends on identical strategies of dismantling it in the physical world. We cannot accept the notion of a de facto state of racial neutrality. The solution to socioeconomic inequalities has never been in maintaining the status quo. In order for us to effectively deal with racism in the world and online we must actively counter it with alternative visions and algorithms of the world we wish to inherit.
At the risk of oversimplification: race is how society defines and reacts to you; ethnicity is how you define and react to others most like yourself. During the last six years there has been a lot of reaction and little time to reflect on what this means for our emerging ideas of race and culture.
Today it is very popular to argue that race is irrelevant and it has become equally fashionable to embrace one’s ethnicity while denying one’s whiteness. I think both of these practices are quite dangerous and counterproductive for variety of reasons. Largely, they underscore a widespread denial of the ongoing impact of race in American society and its relevance to every major question of social and economic justice today. I argue that there are major differences between race and ethnicity that we really ought to think more carefully about because they affect us in a variety of important ways.
One of the reasons this must be is there is no biological or genetic rationale for racial identity. Race is a result of how populations have historically and socially constructed delimiters based on perceived physical and cultural assumptions. Whether these differences are accurate or not, as dominant perceptions they reflect how a society is structured.
People of different races often share the same cultural traditions, homeland, and language but have very different normative assumptions, experiences, and expectations. So for example, if you take two groups of people who occupy the same Caribbean island, formally known as Hispaniola– today we refer to it as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The racial concepts at play in this island are often imported to the United States by Latino immigrants who find that their understanding of who they perceive themselves to be is superseded by how people assign meaning to them. We see this played out between Latinos but more pointedly in the discussions following President Obama’s executive order on immigration
Another reason this question is important is because ethnicity is largely how people culturally orient themselves in a society. Whereas race is determined mostly from the outside to the inside, ethnicity reflects how communities identify themselves from the inside to the outside.
Lastly, we should consider this carefully because ethnic and racial designations often do overlap so these designations can become quite complex. In someways it can be analogous to they way society views the relationship between gender and sexuality. Gender (race) is how society assigns meaning to you while sexuality (ethnicity) is more about how you express your own identity.
This is important because technology to some great extent is an amalgamation of both race and ethnicity. It is how society uses you and how you use yourself. Although human beings create technology (like race) we lack control over how it is used and develops. Although we all use technology on some scale, we interpret our experiences differently via the tools we employ. One some scale, technology is an extrinsic categorical tool like race but also intrinsically significant like ethnicity.
Instead of accepting technologies as extensions of human control of the environment or tools, I prefer to think of technology equally as a product and byproduct of human experiences. The future of the United States (and the world) depends to a degree on what extent the history of race is understood and integrated into our consciousness but it is also how we perceive our role and complicity in that process.
After all, race is a form of technology. It is using us as we use it.