Book Review: Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book builds on the research in Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism and Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, so I definitely recommend reading those two books first. I’m not alone in that, in one of the talks I’ve watched Benjamin give, she explicitly mentions those books as influencing her. I really enjoyed this book, it brought together ideas from my own master’s degree, including the complexity of how technology is used. In one class we specifically discussed the Moses’s bridges in New York (despite this being taught in the Netherlands), which were designed to exclude the poor by preventing buses from crossing the bridge. In this book she discusses this bridge and how it can pull in the very people that were expected to benefit the bridge design (basically a bus full of rich white kids went across after they came back from a trip to Europe, the driver hit the top of the bridge which resulted in 6 people getting seriously injured).

She modernizes these examples by describing how algorithms are created to approximate details about people, such as determining their ethnicity to provide “targeted services.” Due to historical redlining, the practice of creating white people only enclaves in suburbs and portions of the city (a Jim Crow era set of laws), the zip code has become a reliable indicator of ethnicity and race. She gives the example of Diversity, Inc., which creates ethnicity or racial classifications for potentially hiring companies. They will look at the names of people and assess their ethnicity, however due to the history of slavery, many African Americans have white sounding surnames, like Sarah Johnson, to “correctly” identify the ethnicity of Sarah, the company uses her zipcode to assign her race.

Overall, I found a lot of examples in this book very illuminating. Benjamin finds the approach to Design favored in Silicon Valley wanting and excluding, primarily focused on empathizing for making money, which in many cases is empathizing with whiteness. Furthermore, Benjamin argues that empathy can lead skewed results, such as body camera video providing empathy for police officers even when they are killing Black people for crimes which aren’t capital offenses or no crime at all.

As an engineer, I took this book as a warning. That we need to understand how data is impacting those around us. That we need to understand how data that might seem harmless to me, could cause serious harm to someone else. That algorithms that seem to be doing good, could instead be quickly turned into something bad. Facial recognition is a great example. Facebook tags people in photos without consent and this can be exploited by law enforcement. Furthermore, since facial recognition software is so inaccurate, it can misclassify a person as the wrong sex, the wrong person, or in extremely bad past cases, as an animal.

Furthermore, engineers have the responsibility to ensure our work is used to create more equity in the world. Benjamin offers a few different organizations that are working to ensure justice and equity for everyone. Maybe it’s time that software engineers/developers have a responsibility for this the same way a civil engineer must ensure a bridge is safe.

I recommend that anyone that works at a social media company read this. Anyone doing work for algorithms in banks, insurance, hiring, and housing really understand the fact that algorithms aren’t objective. They are as objective as our history. Our history hasn’t been objective nor equitable. We must change that.



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It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message

The Joker said it best in The Dark Knight. Destroying something that people care deeply about wakes them up. Gets them to pay attention. I think the recent events have woken people up in a lot of ways because it’s driven something home that would have otherwise been a misunderstood topic. A few days ago I wrote a blog about the militarization of police in that blog I compared a positive and a negative example of this (Boston and Ferguson). This has been getting a lot of interest lately because of the seeming disconnected in the amount of force actually required and the display of force on hand (especially considering the US government doesn’t think displays of force like this are effective for de-escalating situations). I do think that the protests would have started to draw less attention as time went on – in a similar fashion to the Occupy Wall Street protests fizzled out, however, the fact that the Police started to threaten and arrest a large number of journalists, made the news because the news itself was being threatened.

If we’re honest with ourselves we have to admit that the police killing a young blackman really isn’t news. It happens so often in the US that we rarely see it at a national level. We’d hear about it if it was a white guy (unless he was a drug user) or a white woman. Since it’s just another black kid, we don’t hear about it. However, attention stayed in the area because first amendment rights started to be restricted by the government. I know that a judge ruled that it was a special area which allowed some restrictions on where the press could go, but that’s exactly what the first amendment was supposed to defend the press against. It’s a type of prior restraint.

The press helped make this story bigger than it normally would have been by getting targeted by police. The fact that the news itself became the news to many of the people watching on Twitter rather than the message of the protesters is sad, but I’m glad that it was able to keep the attention on the protests in a way that have been some what constructive. It’s starting to force us to actually have a conversation about what sorts of equipment our police officers need. In an interview with the former Seattle Police Chief that oversaw a similar sort of confrontation in 1999 over the World Trade Organization, he argued that what needed to happen was a reduction in arms on the police side. He further argued that there is a great deal of racism in our police forces, not initially intentionally, but through learned fear and through common language in the departments. This is partially a result of the “Us vs. Them” mentality that results whenever two groups are continual conflict – anyone that might be part of the other group is part of that group. Because the War Against Drugs has primarily impacted the black communities, this has pitted the police against the black communities. It is likely part of the reason we have a lack of diversity in our police forces.

We’re finding in other portions of our society similar sorts of either intentional or accidental bias. Looking at the populations of the largest tech companies in the world we see the same sort of biases and segregations. In many cases it is because these selections become path dependent. People end up hiring friends and pulling in more people that look like them. Creating a larger problem and then HR has to step in and it’s a forced issue and people might question why a person was hired in appropriately.

The police have shined this light on themselves through their brutal responses where they show a clear lack of understanding of the people they are expected to be protecting and serving. Their actions, which should be protecting the press as well, have made sure that the press is going to be paying very close attention to all of their actions in the next few years. Furthermore, anything like the killing of another black man in the St. Louis area will result in extra scrutiny.

I think that killing that man ended up sending a message as much as taking away the rights of the protesters and press (both first amendments). The police don’t care and can act with impunity against the black community. They don’t care what the press does they will block Freedom of Information requests, prevent the press from filming their actions, and arrest anyone that gets in their way. A message has been sent. How we react is important to the future health of our press, our communities, and our freedom.