Published: July 10, 2020
Written: July 9, 2019
On July 8, Nisha Bolsey, an editor at Haymarket Books, hosted Policing Without the Police: Race, Technology and the New Jim Code—an online teach-in with Ruha Benjamin and Dorothy Roberts. Before beginning this too-brief reflection on the conversation they held, I would like to note that academic writing often perpetuates the erasure and appropriation of its BIPOC sources and subjects' labour. Following in the tradition of Indigenous land acknowledgment, I begin by acknowledging and foregrounding the intellectual labour of thinkers upon whose work this writing grows: Ruha Benjamin, Dorothy Roberts, Nisha Bolsey, Kim Tallbear, Wendy Chun, Audra Simpson.
Ruha Benjamin, near the beginning of the teach-in, describes imagination as “the terrain of struggle.” This is an incredibly important lens through which architects and designers should view our own work at every stage, from the digital procedure to the physical manifestation. As Benjamin states:
One way to understand the inequalities and injustices we see is that many people are forced to live inside someone else’s imagination. When we think about the digital world being crafted for us—the physical spatialization of race and inequality—that is the materialization of someone’s imagination. And part of democratizing and resisting the imposition of that imagination is also cultivating our own counter-imaginaries—our own liberatory imagination.
The question Benjamin urges us to ask ourselves as we move through our environments is: who is imagining these worlds, and, how can we resist? As we begin to unpack the structures and systems of our world that delineate who is harmed and who benefits, Dorothy Roberts begins by deconstructing race as a tool European enlightenment thinkers used to divide humans in the world we live in today. It’s important to recognize here a related note—in Audra Simpson’s book, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, Simpson describes how such resistance and refusal have been practiced by Indigenous peoples, sometimes at the sacrifice of their own social stability and health, to establish their nationhood while their colonizer continues to assume and assert a false position of authority to recognize Indigenous identity.
That is to say, racial order and classification were invented and are actively built as a way to frame inequality as ‘natural’ and to legitimize oppressive systems, such as prisons, child welfare and healthcare systems—to perpetuate white supremacy. For example, under the seemingly positive banner of Child Protective Services, white saviorist attitudes of “protecting children” criminalize, terrorize, and police Black and Indigenous families, motherhood, and reproduction., This parallels the injustices of the health care system, and the racial violence of Jim Crow Laws—all of these are frameworks that scapegoat societal ills and violence onto the people most affected by that violence (which Robert elaborates on extensively in her book, Killing of the Black Body). These practices of targeting Black bodies are perpetuated in a “contemporary” context through what Benjamin calls the “New Jim Code.” She states that innovation comes hand in hand with containment. The popular conflation of innovation and social progress, instead of better aiding or understanding the subjects of these technologies, embed promises that hide the reality of their violence.
Medicine, like policing, Roberts adds, maintains racial order, as race is seen as a biological trait that factors into whether or not someone gets treatment, under a seemingly benevolent veil. Kim Tallbear also writes about how race—from the position of DNA—defines one’s access to resources in her book DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Increasingly, genuine reform toward equitable health practices are supplanted by a relinquishing of decision-making to the domain of technology, as the screen presents a mirror of neutrality that is perceived as somehow superior to a ‘fallible,’ biased doctor. In the conversation, Benjamin cites how triage algorithms that determine the distribution of ventilators during the current COVID-19 crisis are built on historic data of who is ‘most likely to survive.’ This practice exactly reinscribes and perpetuates in the history of racial profiling, as well as racist and ablist insurance value structuresthat repeatedly gauged BIPOC individuals as ‘least likely to survive.’ (Related reading: Megan Twohey wrote an article in the New York Times on July 9 titled Who Gets a Vaccine First? U.S. Considers Race in Coronavirus Plans). The question of who deserves care has now been lifted out of the responsibility of doctors and into an automated, self-validating eugenics system, pre-equipped with the same racial biases it is intended to undo. It calls to mind Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s Yale School of Architecture lecture, titled Authenticating Figures: Algorithms and the New Politics of Recognition, where she spoke about the inherited biases of data archives that are used to build machine-learning algorithms (side note: where are all the recent lectures on YSoA’s YouTube channel?).
Techno-benevolence is hidden oppression, and the narrative that the builders of contemporary consumer technologies have the public’s best interest at heart must actively be deconstructed. The Silicon Valley executives that subscribe to the techno-utopian faith that, as Benjamin describes it, “technology will save us,” are the same groups of people who continually evade taxes and avoid investing in public goods. Alternatively, there is an inverse attitude that Benjamin describes: “technology will slay us,” which mistakenly frames technology as having complete subjugatory agency over humans. Her advice: push back. Build, support, and demand a new set of tools (like Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Data for Black Lives, White Collar Crime Risk Zones, and Anti-eviction Mapping Apps).
Benjamin concludes, in the most agrarian language, the answer is not shifting money or “opting out” on basic terms, but uprooting foundations and seeding alternatives, such as the mutual aid groups that we’ve seen emerge across the country during this pandemic. We need to analyze the power structures in our own backyards, redefine them, and question what we are cultivating, as it cannot be hierarchies of knowledge that create ecosystems of harm.
Roberts closed with a reiteration that race was invented and is, furthermore, constantly being reinvented. She encourages us to ask ourselves: what is race being used for? We need to build and maintain solidarity through working and activity groups—instead of diverting funds from police to so-called child welfare programs and school security officers, both of which reconstitute white supremicist systems of oppression, we must imagine and create meaningful change. We must provide, directly and non-coercively, systems of care to families and communities (e.g. Movement for Family Power, National Coalition of Child Protection Reform, Detroit Community Technology Project).