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Our January 21st, 2015, Technology Salon examined the role of technology in addressing structural discrimination in the US. We were hosted by the Brooklyn Community Foundation (BCF), whose Director of Community Leadership, Tynesha McHarris, served as a lead discussant. Courtney D. Cogburn Assistant Professor of Social Work at Columbia University and Senior Advisor to the International Center for Advocates against Discrimination (ICAAD), joined as our second discussant.

Our discussion covered various angles, as summarized below, related to the central point of structural discrimination and racism.

Discrimination has multiple forms.

It can be observed at an individual level and in exchanges between people, but we shouldn’t reduce discrimination to a problem of an individual’s beliefs and behaviors, said our first lead discussant, Courtney. Rather we need to look at it as a complex whole that is embedded into structures and culture, and as a set of historic discriminatory patterns that produce systemic social disadvantage. “If we focus at the individual level, we will focus on individual accountability and individual solutions. Instead of looking at the systemic issues, we’ll encourage individuals to try harder, to be smarter, to stop being criminals. We’ll look at those who turn out OK as being exceptional,” she said.

“’I’m not racist’ doesn’t mean ‘I’m anti-racism.’ I don’t need you to like me, I need you to hate racism,” she continued. Interpersonal relationships won’t end structural and social disadvantage. This issue is also bigger than simple socio-economic status. So ending poverty won’t eradicate racism. In our society, there are two sides of the coin – discrimination or privilege, advantage or disadvantage. Our roles and our accountability here depend on how we came out in the coin toss.”

Empirical data on racism in the US are troubling.

As Courtney outlined:

  • Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be rejected or receive worse terms on a loan — even when they have comparable financial backgrounds/risk to Whites
  • White men earn roughly 15% more than Black men with comparable education and experience
  • A White male with a felony conviction is more likely to be hired than a Black male with a clean record — all other factors being the same
  • Black women with a college degree have higher risk of premature/low birth weight than every other racial/ethnic group across levels of education
  • Even when accounting for various socio-economic status factors, including quality of health insurance: Blacks have an early onset, worse progression and premature death; they are more likely to be amputated and less likely to receive pain medication; and mothers exposed to discrimination while pregnant have higher stress hormones, which transfer over to their newborn children
  • Black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer. And Black men, our discussant argued, are also more likely to have their deaths mocked, for example, in the case of Trayvon Martin Halloween costumes and the Mike Brown musical.

In the US we fail to frame this as a human rights issue.

If we observed a similar situation happening elsewhere in the world, we would consider it a human rights issue, commented one participant. How can we change the debate in the US? Another felt we need to move the debate within the US from offering ‘charity’ to talking about ‘justice.’ “We need to talk about privilege and power, and philanthropy is about both – it’s older White men making decisions about money that impact the lives of people of color.”

Can technology help?

Social awareness and empathy are critical, as are data and equity-based policies, noted a discussant. Social awareness can help people see beyond their own realities. That might help more people to support equity-based policy. But we also need data in order to document discrimination. “If you don’t have an empirical base, people say ‘that’s just you, you’re playing the race card, Black people are just more violent.’ So we need data to show patterns of violence and discrimination in order to tackle this at the systemic level.” Newer technology can play a role with helping people empathize and with collecting data and visualizing patterns.

In the past several months, videos and hashtags have played a critical role in documenting racist incidents and engaging people and helping them to empathize, said a lead discussant. State violence and police violence are not new, but people are talking about them right now. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the #BlackLivesMatter movement was run by Black queer women. They are not being recognized for this, yet it’s been trending all over the world. At the same time, it makes me want to cry. I need a hashtag to tell the world that my life, the lives of Black people matter? Just having to state that is problematic.”

Amplifying stories, such as is happening in the ‘Serial’ podcast, which has caused a case to be re-opened, is another way that technology and media have addressed racism and built empathy through mainstream and social media. Gaming may also be a way to help people empathize, said another participant. Efforts are also being made to use virtual reality technology (oculus rift) to help people empathize with situations that they cannot personally experience. YouTube has been a powerful space for helping bring issues of structural racism and State sponsored violence against certain groups into the public eye both nationally and internationally.

“I’m from Cleveland,” noted another participant, “and I’ve been in touch with organizers working on the Tamir Rice case. Technology in that instance has been so helpful in organizing a disorganized city. We’re talking about Google groups and list serves being used in similar ways to how women used list serves and yahoo groups to organize post-Katrina relief. So technology can include even the bare minimum. Email is so powerful to organize mass amounts of people. The NY Justice League is also doing a lot of this kind of work.”

Tech can also help with transparency and credibility. “We found that putting data up on a website helped us to be credible and more transparent – it also gave us strength, backing and encouragement. We posted video narratives backed up with data, and this became part of our outreach and a focus for wider discussions about structural discrimination and issues like the criminal justice system and school suspensions,” commented one person.

Collecting and visualizing data is another arena where technology is useful in the case of structural discrimination, noted another participant, giving the example of hate crimes. “The New York Police Department only has reports of between 7 and 9 thousand hate crimes per year, yet the Department of Justice records up to 290k hate crimes. That is a data gap. We’ve argued that the absence of data is a structural issue. How can the State protect what it has no knowledge or record of? Tech and better data could fill this gap. Communities could report hate crimes through an app either directly to the police or to an NGO/civil society organization as a liaison if they felt uncomfortable reporting directly due to fear of the police.” Better tracking could help put more resources into preventing and following up on hate crimes.

We also need to be better at translating data for people and building empathy around it, said a discussant. “I think we have enough data. We know what’s going on. The issue is translating data across spaces. How can we create a collective body of data? And then there’s a big problem with framing of the issues. I can tell you all day long that Blacks are more likely to die early or be shot by the police, but if that doesn’t fit within your frame or align with your thinking, the data won’t matter.”

Obviously, tech can’t do it all!

“We can’t ask tech to do the work that our minds and hearts have to do,” said one person.

“In Ferguson, right after Mike Brown was murdered, I was close to the people running the Ferguson Action website. I watched a team of communications and web people trying to figure out how to talk about this with America. They were trying to make it compelling enough so that the world would respond to the death of a child, and that broke my heart a little.” People responded to Ferguson because of raw images of young people resisting that shocked us out of our senses, she added.

“We need organizers, lawyers, and communications strategists in this fight. We can’t expect for tech to take the place of work of courage, of seeing the world as it is, and knowing we have agency to change it. Without that website, without that hashtag, however, would the world have known what was happening?” she asked. “Technology and branding brought it to national and world attention.”

Despite that, however, young Black men are still getting shot. It’s still repeating itself. We need to open minds and hearts because there are fundamental beliefs that our media, our literature, our stories are cemented in. Changing minds and hearts is the work we still need to do, she commented.

Tech may divide communities and limit participation

As much as technology can help to support to organize people around human rights and social justice work, tech can also divide communities, noted one discussant. “In East New York, [during a consultation process in Brooklyn], we found that those who feel the most comfortable and confident using tech have been at an advantage when it comes to pushing for their opinions about what is happening in our communities. So they end up having a greater amount of participation in development processes in Brooklyn.” Often new ways of participating in these debates don’t take into consideration that many older people would prefer to find out about things through a flyer and to participate face to face or in community meetings. There are also people with disabilities and recent immigrants who tend to be left out as government starts to become e-government and consultations are more often conducted online.

We need to better understand technology used by and against our communities

“In doing research in Bed-Sty with young people of color on their social networks and tech use, I realized that I had a lot of assumptions about youth culture, mobile technology, and community relations, and they’ve all been challenged. As researchers, we need to continually ask ourselves how tech can help us document discrimination. We need to look at the hardware, the digital artifacts, the hashtags that help us to locate culture and document conversations,” said one person.

“These young people are on platforms I’ve never heard of,” she continued. “They are negotiating their identity spaces in ways I’ve never heard of before. I’m always asking ‘What are you doing? What does that mean?’ I’m asking about ethical and privacy issues and surveillance. I’m less interested in what they are doing when they are online or on their phones and more concerned about how their community is being watched from the outside and how that connects to what they do in their online spaces. There are lots of video cameras in their neighborhoods. They’ll ask me: will the police see my text messages? There is a concern and an acknowledgement of surveillance via social media and tech.” Another participant shared some detailed research on access to and use of technology among low income New Yorkers conducted by her organization.

What about teaching Black youth to code?

Some participants felt that efforts to teach Black and Latino you to code are critical to resolving structural discrimination. “One of the biggest economic justice issues in our country is young people of color not coding,” said one participant. “Coding lets you create things and you can generate income just by people downloading your app.” Currently the vast majority of coders are White and Asian males, and schools don’t tend to teach brown and black kids how to code, they said.

Others pushed back at this idea. “Young ppl I’m working with are not creating apps. They are trying to figure out how to use tech in their day-to-day lives – to create a resume, to find a job. We should be thinking about what are the possibilities and the challenges of having these devices in our communities. How do they constrain or offer support?” commented one person. Another noted “Access to tech is not as simple as ‘Do you have access to a computer and some will power.’ The problem is that systematically for the first 15 years of a young Black man’s life he gets the message that he is worthless. It’s not just parents, it’s teachers, it’s television, and it’s the structural issues. We need to also create environments that encourage Black youth.”

One discussant said that the default response is to point out individual success stories and to put effort into helping individuals who are disadvantaged, “but how about working more to shake things up at the top and hold the privileged and advantaged more accountable? Rather than ‘How do we help these poor kids,’ we should be asking, ‘how are we helping remedy this at its source?’”

These are social justice issues, commented another person. “So yes, teaching 10 year olds to code is great. But the problem is that this is a structural problem that hits 80 year olds, 60 year olds, 40 year olds, and 20 year olds. There is no quick fix. We need to continue to organize. And apps are not the real structural and systemic change that we need. We need to also talk about funding. There is no funding for a radically different way of thinking. It will take time. But how to put money behind big ideas?” she asked. “Can we seed and support more entrepreneurial work with youth in our communities? Is there a tech opportunity there? Can we use technology to link people to a tenant protection fund and to connect them with tenant rights information and eviction support? What would all that look like and how can we make it happen?”

The Brooklyn Insights report synthesizes input from individuals and community organizations across the boroughs and sets out priorities .

The Brooklyn Insights report synthesizes input from individuals and community organizations across the boroughs and sets out priorities.

We need more participatory design and cross-disciplinary teams

“Are the people we are trying to help at the table with us when we are designing?” asked a participant. “And can we do a better job of helping designers and coders to empathize with the people they are designing for? Can we get people out of their boxes and will they be willing to work in an environment where they feel consistently uncomfortable with their own privilege and power?”

“Are there places besides Tech Salon where these conversations are happening?” asked another person. Participants noted that there are hackathons but felt that normally they don’t lead to much in the way of real change. Doing a hackathon for and by a particular user community and tying developments into services that will still be there on Monday was one suggestion for remedying this gap.

Others asked how we could bring together multi-disciplinary teams that combine a deep knowledge of and experience in a community with social science, data science, law, and the social media capacity to help people empathize. A number of organizations present at the Salon are working with and/or conducting research in communities in Brooklyn or around issues of structural discrimination. Others specialize in creating technology for low-resource communities, and some are funding or otherwise supporting wider efforts to reduce structural discrimination. There was interest in continuing this discussion and addressing together some of the structural discrimination issues felt in Brooklyn communities and in the wider US.

Take a look at the BCF’s Insights report, which summarizes results from community consultations with over 1000 Brooklyn residents and numerous community organizations and offers a good overview of the core issues that Brooklyn communities are facing. And join us for Technology Salon Brooklyn, in collaboration with the Brooklyn Community Foundation, where we’ll meet (in Brooklyn) to discuss some of the issues raised and the role of technology in addressing or exacerbating them.

Thanks to ThoughtWorks for providing breakfast for us and to BCF for hosting! If you’d like to attend Technology Salon Brooklyn or Technology Salon New York City, sign up here to receive invitations!

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