The technological side of racism

The other day I got a notification on my phone. A friend whom I haven’t seen in far too long posted a picture and Facebook thought that I might be in it. I got nostalgically excited trying to imagine what the photo might be. Was it that time I went to visit her and her family at her in-laws’? Maybe it was that time she sang with me onstage. It might have even been from when we worked together nearly a decade ago.

It wasn’t any of that. it wasn’t even a picture of me. It was one of those memes with a quote and a picture of the person being quoted. The person in this case was the rapper Common and Facebook wanted to know if I wanted to tag myself as him. I did not.

ICYDK, I look like this and Common looks like this and if I’m being perfectly honest, people often say I look like him. People in Maine, that is. White people in Maine, to be more specific. In other places where there are more Black people, this rarely happens.

Anyway, I compare my feeling of this false identification with how amazed and terrified I was a few years ago when Facebook correctly auto-tagged my white girlfriend despite the fact that most of her face was hidden behind giant diva sunglasses. Now, to be clear, my problem is not that I want to be auto-tagged by Facebook. I’m perfectly happy for it to have no idea who I am. This isn’t about being left out, or snubbed. It’s about a terrible sci-fi future in which racism doesn’t erode so much as advance just as exponentially as technology.

Some of you may think this is silly. Some of you may even be saying to yourselves “At least it’s not as bad as when Google was tagging Black people as gorillas or when cameras were commenting on Asians’ eyes,” However, this is not the first time I’ve come across these little bits of techno-racism. For example, I’d always thought those automatic soap dispensers in public restrooms were just broken. Then other Black people started posting videos of the same thing not happening for them and I realized something more specific was happening.

While perhaps seeming small, these things are all part of a pattern forming a terrifying future for everyone not white. Because, while the inability to detect darker skin tones is a problem in automatic soap dispensers, it is being reported as a much bigger problem in driverless cars not recognizing Black pedestrians. The problem gets even bigger just by reading this recent Washington Post headline: Racial bias in a medical algorithm favors white patients over sicker black patients.

As terrifying as all of that is, it doesn’t take much to imagine the horror of a Minority Report-like world in which similar racist algorithms are used in the criminal justice system. In fact, it takes no imagination at all because it’s already happening. The algorithms are called “risk assessment” tools and not only are they just as terrifying as you think, but according to theappeal.org, “Nearly every U.S. state and the federal system have implemented risk assessment in some form.”

While the current wave of tech offers the usual promise of a bright future for some, for Black people it’s threatening to send us back into a much more ruthless past. Not that racism in the tech world is anything new. It’s not. It’s been there from the very beginning. The very first American tech pioneer was a man named Herman Hollerith. He invented an electromagnetic tabulator that not only ushered in the computer age, but assisted and massively accelerated the institutionalization of racism from late 19th century America all the way through Nazi Germany.

As Yasha Levine wrote in his essay on Hollerith, The Racist Origins of America’s Tech Industry, “The data provided by Hollerith’s invention did not cause the racism, nativism, and eugenics that saw class and poverty through the lens of breeding rather than politics and economic policy. But it gave those fears concrete shape—and it provided data to which those fears could be hitched.”

Racism is in the foundations of this country and everything it’s built. It hasn’t gone away or necessarily gotten any better. Like technology, racism has, however, become more complicated. And as long as technology requires us to understand less and less of the world around us, these complications, while seeming innocuous to some, will only prove to be more and more deadly for others.


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Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Real lynchings and the worst face of whiteness

When the president likened his impending impeachment to a lynching, several things exploded in my brain. The first explosion was that he has to be trying to distract us from his impending impeachment. The problem there is that he’s a racist and racism is not a distraction. It’s another separate, very real and all too often deadly problem.

The second idea that fired off in my head was that there is no language for his situation. Lynchings were how a white male power structure punished Black people. The president often claims to be a victim of a witch hunt—how a white male power structure punished women. If you are a white male, the power structure that supports you will not punish you. This is not to say white men don’t get punished by a system, just that being white isn’t the cause for their punishment. In other words, white guys don’t get pulled over for being white guys, no political party is trying to take away the white guy vote, etc., on and on, ad infinitum.

The third thought that fired off in my head was about my grandfather, Gus. He was born in 1890, less than 15 miles outside of Waco and he didn’t know any white people. Everyone in his neighborhood, everyone he worked with, everyone at his church and everyone in his family was Black. He only ever even heard about white people when something bad happened.

Between 1882 and 1930 there were 492 recorded lynchings in Texas. In 1916, when Gus was 25 years old, Waco was thought of as a particularly forward-thinking and progressive place. That same year in Waco was when Jesse Washington was lynched.

Jesse was 17 years old and had been accused of raping and murdering his white boss’ white wife. Even though it was probably his white boss who killed her, Jesse was given a “trial” and convicted. Immediately following his conviction, a mob came into the court, wrapped a chain around Jesse’s neck and dragged him outside. They marched Jesse up and down the block while people in the street beat and stabbed him. Then they castrated him. Then he was chained up, his fingers cut off to keep him from climbing the chain. They covered him in oil and raised and lowered him over a fire for two hours, occasionally cutting and stabbing him to keep him conscious. This all happened in front of 10,000 cheering white people. After Jesse eventually died, his body was dragged through the streets and picked apart, teeth and toes and other pieces of his corpse sold as souvenirs. Photos were taken and turned into postcards. Jesse’s lynching would be known all over the country as The Waco Horror.

In the weeks that followed, the newspapers spoke very little of the Waco Horror. When the rare editorial spoke out against the lynching, the response from other editorials called them “Holier than thou.”

That’s what whiteness was to Gus. It wasn’t the innocent mildness that it associates with itself. It wasn’t Donna Reed or Goop. It didn’t give him a heartfelt smile or make him roll his eyes with embarrassment. It wasn’t anything close to innocuous and it certainly wasn’t any kind of victimhood. Whiteness was only what it showed itself to be, and all it ever showed Gus was a ruthless and deliberate and all too often deadly animosity.

Gus died in 1957. So much of the world changed in his lifetime. So much more has changed since, but were he alive today, I think the president would seem very familiar to him.


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Photo by Tamara Gore on Unsplash

Forgiveness is expected (even required) from Black people

When I saw Brandt Jean hug his brother’s killer I felt my face get hot. Rage. Pure. I was in an airport, and since I couldn’t react with the volume I normally would have at home, I just sat with it. Silently. I forced myself to examine my rage. Admittedly, I found that some of that rage was from knowing that as soon as he hugged that murderer, every Black person in America was going to have to deal with at least 2.5 white people saying, “Well, he forgave her, so you should, too/you’re so angry/it’s not that bad/etc.” Somehow, in times of need there is never a shortage of white people to set our examples for us.

Shamefully, some of the rage was at Brandt for not taking the rest of us into account in his decision to publicly embrace a killer. Then I wondered if I was abiding by that very same white supremacist setting of examples. This man should get to grieve however he feels to be necessary. He shouldn’t have to set an example for the rest of America. He shouldn’t have to hold back his compassion because of how it’s perception might affect the rest of us. White people don’t have to worry about that. White people aren’t told to grieve a certain way because of how Black people might perceive it. They have a freedom in their grief.

Then, in thinking about freedom I remembered my father’s letter from George HW Bush.

It was a thank-you letter signed by the dead ex-prez himself. My father got it by donating to Bush’s campaign. He kept the letter in a frame on the wall in the living room just under his own eye level. He placed it there because he wanted his friends to see it and my father was taller than his friends.

Lest you get the wrong idea, my father was not a fan of George HW Bush. He thought Bush was the racist milksop war criminal history shows him to be. But my father was a veteran and his community was made of veterans. White veterans. In a white town. In the whitest state. This meant, for my father to feel that he and his family were safe, he needed to do certain things to shield himself and us from that whiteness. In this particular case, that meant sending $10 to the 1988 George HW Bush Presidential campaign.

My father grew up walking through colored entrances and using colored bathrooms and drinking colored water in a white world that that would kill him if he did otherwise. If he even said what he thought about Bush, there could be consequences, but not just for him.

My father was not free to speak his mind and neither is Brandt Jean. Both my father and Brandt Jean are from a country in which the police are a leading cause of death, in which white supremacy continues to run rampant—especially throughout law enforcement, in which law enforcement officers continue to be the most punitive, petty and vengeful members of society, yet the only ones permitted to kill.

Brandt Jean lives in a country in which his own brother was just murdered by an admittedly racist police officer. He lives in a country in which there are ruthless consequences for not being nice to white people and those consequences aren’t only paid by the individual. They are often paid by an entire family.

I am not saying that Brandt Jean’s compassion is insincere or implying anything about his motivations. This is not about him. This is about a country that demands white humanity be constantly and vibrantly visible while commanding Black humanity to be silent, worthless and invisible. This is about the outcome of that inverted relationship; their inhumanity encourages them to kill us while our humanity forgives them for it. This is about a system that only goes in that specific direction. This is about a pattern that must stop because the forgiveness will eventually stop, either because the violence has ceased and/or simply because there will be none of us left to grant that forgiveness.


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