Book Review from the Journal: Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin

This week, we are featuring a book review from Volume 46 of the Carolina Planning Journal, The White Problem in Planning. Joungwon Kwon reflects on Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code.

Book Review by Joungwon Kwon

Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code offers past and current technology examples in our everyday life to demonstrate technology’s failures in eliminating racism. Without assessing the problems entailed by emerging technology, the public and private sectors are quickly implementing technology in different settings. Although many advocates frame technology as an unbiased tool, Benjamin asserts that technology, including AI and robots, are not neutral. Indeed, to Benjamin, the dominance of emerging technologies, and the racism underlying their design and use, constitutes a “New Jim Code.”

“Data, in short, do not speak for themselves and don’t always change hearts and minds or policy.” (p. 206)

When programmers create technological tools, they use data that reflects the systematic racism built into our society. The most common example is discrimination based on names. Research shows that white-sounding first names have advantages over Black-sounding names (Benjamin 2019, 15), and technology that uses this racially biased data reproduces this racism and continues to support White supremacy. Benjamin informs users that critical thinking is necessary, and it may be challenging compared to the past. For example, Robert Moses’s plans to build bridges in New York City so low that buses would not be able to pass underneath were an explicitly racist effort to exclude poorer people of color. In contrast, racism in technology is challenging to detect because technology is often framed as an objective tool. It is difficult for users to understand all the data and design choices that programmers have made. Therefore, Benjamin encourages users to not blindly accept what is shown on the screen, and to ask questions about programmers’ intentions and how the design of technology can disadvantage some communities over others.

“Invisibility, with regard to Whiteness, offers immunity.” (p. 14)

One of the most infamous algorithms for racial bias is predictive policing. Predictive policing tries to predict future crimes by analyzing historical crime data, which perpetuates racist historical patterns of incarceration among Black and Latinx populations.

Benjamin provides ways to flip the script for racially biased algorithms. One example is the White-Collar Early Warning System, which highlights financial crimes on a heat map and includes a facial recognition program to identify corporate executives, mostly White, who are likely to be perpetrators. It makes Whiteness and financial crimes visible.

The book also includes cases of apps focused on decarceration, especially for people who cannot afford bail money. Promise tracks individuals’ locations before trial or sentencing, thereby reducing the need for bail payments. Although the app may seem “good,” it can easily be used against individuals due to the nature of its continuous surveillance. Both systems allow technology to be abolitionist tools instead of perpetuating racism. However, the “good” apps can always be used in reverse at any moment. Another decarceration app, Appolition avoids Promise’s surveillance problems by crowdfunding donations for bail out money for incarcerated people.

“By deliberately and inventively upsetting the techno status quo in this manner, analysts can better understand and expose the many forms of discrimination embedded in and enabled by technology.” (p. 211)

Benjamin closes the book with what society can do to bring justice to technology: disrupt the techno status quo. The current status of technology embeds discrimination. Therefore, disrupting the status quo means to change and question the technology. In the first four chapters, she illustrates how technology has perpetuated Jim Crow laws, and how analysts, artists, and activists need to work to reform these systems. Moreover, new apps, programs, and data require a holistic understanding instead of an ends-justify-the-means approach. She argues that “New Jim Code fixes are a permanent placeholder for bolder change” (p. 174). A solution to one problem may bring more problems to other areas, so the fixes need to be cautiously thought through with a long-term vision that prioritizes justice.

Although Benjamin presents examples, many questions are left without answers. For instance, she states that society needs an abolitionist toolkit for technology. The abolitionist toolkit is not specific and centers data analysts and designers. For technology users, the book does not provide solutions to disrupt the techno status quo, which may frustrate some readers. However, technology is dramatically changing, and these problems do not have one-size-fits-all solutions. Benjamin’s examples are helpful in understanding the New Jim Code, but they are sometimes not described in detail. For example, the book mentions several apps, such as Promise, and their problems without offering enough context. This lack of description may leave readers perplexed. Nonetheless, the book helps to recognize emerging technology problems and bring the conversation to various settings in the public and private sectors.

Race After Technology lies at the intersection of many disciplines studies and will be interesting for those who are curious about systemic racism, technology, and cities. Benjamin’s background is in African American Studies, which presents the book with a clear racial justice lens. Benjamin poses many questions about technology’s influence on today’s societies and enables readers to imagine more equitable cities. The takeaways for readers are that technology users need to think critically, flipping the script for digital platforms and upsetting the techno status quo instead of accepting technology’s default, if they want to change the New Jim Code. In the future, specific solutions for tech users and more detailed examples would be great additions to the book.

Buy Race After Technology here.

Find Volume 46 of the Carolina Planning Journal online here.

Jo (Joungwon) Kwon is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. She hopes to interweave various data sets and narratives of housing and communities together with new digital technologies. With a background in Statistics and English Literature, she received her M.A. in Computational Media at Duke University. In her free time, she enjoys watching indie films, going to live performances, and drinking good coffee.