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How does Historical Racism Impact Technology?

In this article, we explore the history of racism in the UK and USA in relation to how historical racism affects modern technology.
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© Creative Computing Institute
Racism has been a part of the societal discourse in the UK for several centuries. To understand how racist ideas have become a part of our society and technology, it is important to see how they have been allowed to pervade the way we see people of different races and how they have been systemically encouraged and enforced.
This article does not provide an entire historical account of racism and its relationship to technology. Rather, we would like to demonstrate that it is not particularly surprising that technology perpetuates racism, as it is a part of the human history and society which racism has been, and in some cases still is, codified into.
We can’t understand how technologies perpetuate racism if we don’t understand its broader history. We will limit our summary to the UK and the USA, although we acknowledge that racism severely impacts communities globally, and these impacts are felt differently depending on the social, political and geographical contexts people live in. This article has been written from a UK vantage point, but we hope that the material resonates with you wherever you are.
The history of racism in the UK is well documented in the context of colonisation, the Trans Atlantic slave trade and more recently in the arrival of Caribbean and Asian immigrants. While attitudes to racism have varied over time, racist policies and politics have been a part of British history. There are various studies on racism and racial inequality.
Here are a few accounts of legal racism and policies in the UK:
  • The 1905 Aliens Act closed the UK’s borders to Jewish refugees fleeing widespread persecution and massacres in Eastern Europe (1).
  • The 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act stripped emigrating Asian peoples from Kenya & Uganda with British citizenship of the right to enter Britain unless they had parents or grandparents who were born in the UK or citizens of the UK. We will look at examples of racist technologies in immigration later on (2).
  • The 1981 Nationality Act required that nationality and citizenship be traced through the ancestry of those born on the island and effectively excluded non-white people (3).
  • The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: following the racially motivated murder of a teenager, the Metropolitan Police Service was found to be institutionally racist, incompetent and that officers had committed errors in their investigation, leading to the victim’s family pursuing a private prosecution (4, 5).

Technology & Racism in the UK

Racist policies, practices and beliefs have persisted despite shifting attitudes and legislation. Stereotyping and racial discrimination are embedded in technology in harmful ways. In the UK the 2021 “Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’’ report rejected the well-evidenced existence of institutional racism and failed again to acknowledge that there has been little or no work done on the experience of everyday racism. (6).

Racism in the History of The USA

The history of racism in the USA is also extensively documented. Here are some examples of legal racism and policies in more recent history:
  • Jim Crow laws facilitated the segregation of Americans of African descent leading to a denial of services and economic and social disadvantages of Black peoples of America (7).
  • Redlining was the practice of designating neighbourhoods into various categories based on race. Areas with racial minorities were thereby considered high risk for mortgage lenders and excluded from certain services and opportunities. This limited the ability of African Americans to participate in wealth building (8).

Technology & racism in the USA

Racist beliefs, data and policies continue to pervade discourse and opportunities across the USA today. Data that is used to build technology is often historical data that is biased due to historical racism (9). Historical perceptions of racial minorities influence how technology teams prioritise the needs of racial majorities (white people in the US) or justify racist attitudes through biased historical data (10).
In ‘Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code’, Ruha Benjamin refers back to the Jim Crow laws through the concept of the “New Jim Code”. She uses this idea to explore “a range of discriminatory designs that encode inequity: by explicitly amplifying racial hierarchies, by ignoring but thereby replicating social divisions, or by aiming to fix racial bias but ultimately doing quite the opposite.” (11)
In her book, Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble introduces the concept of ‘technological redlining’ to describe discriminatory forms of digital profiling. Whereas in the past, an individual banker may have made a face-to-face discriminatory decision that a Black or Latino family couldn’t get a loan, we now have “new models where financial institutions are looking at our social networks to make decisions about us. For example, if we have too many people who seem to be a credit risk in our social networks, then that actually impacts the decisions that get made about us”. (12)
Can you think of any forms of historical racism that manifest in today’s technologies?

References:

  1. Dr. Madge Dresser, no date. Jewish immigration and the Aliens Act, Our Migration Story.
  2. UK Government, 1968. Commonwealth Immigrants Act
  3. UK Government, 1981. British Nationality Act 1981
  4. Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, advised by Tom Cook, the Right Reverend Dr. John Sentamu, Dr. Richard Stone, 1999. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.
  5. Danny Shaw, 2019. Stephen Lawrence: how has his murder changed policing? BBC.
  6. Uk Government, 2021 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities
  7. Examples of Jim Crow laws – Oct. 1960 – civil rights, Ferris State University.
  8. Brandon G. Donnelly, no date. A short history of redlining, Smart Cities Dive.
  9. Rashida Richardson, Jason Shultz and Kate Crawford, 2019. Dirty data, bad predictions: how civil rights violations impact police data, predictive policing systems, and justice, SSRN.
  10. Rebecca C. Hetey and Jennifer L. Eberhardt, 2018. The numbers don’t speak for themselves: racial disparities and the persistence of inequality in the criminal justice system,, Association for Psychological Science.
  11. Ruha Benjamin, 2019. Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, Polity Press.
  12. USC Annenberg, 2018. In ‘Algorithms of Oppression,’ Safiya Noble finds old stereotypes persist in new media

Further resources:

UK
  1. Notting Hill/Dale Riots (1958) (7) Alice Bhandhukravi, 2008. Notting Hill riots – 50 years on, BBC.
  2. Race Relations Act 1965 (8) UK Government, 1965. Race Relations Act, 1965
USA
  1. Danyelle Solomon, Connor Maxwell, and Abril Castro, 2019. Systemic inequality: displacement, exclusion, and segregation, American Progress.
  2. Andrew Lee Park, 2019. Injustice ex machina: predictive algorithms in criminal sentencing, UCLA.
© Creative Computing Institute
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Anti-Racist Approaches in Technology

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