Don’t get too excited about tech advances. Many are designed to leave Black people behind
Rapid innovations in science and technology, if left unchecked, will only fan the flames of inequality.
Editor’s Note: This month at BYP, we will be exploring Black Liberation & Organizing, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics. How do we hold politicians accountable to Black communities? Is that even possible? What should be our role in the electoral politics? What does abolition look like in practice? What is the viability of third party organizing, or non-voting? What amazing work are community-based organizations doing in your hood, and what can we learn from them?
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By Dalvin Aboagye
Like many others, I can’t help but watch anxiously as the continuous procession of Democratic presidential hopefuls pander and petition their way towards a shot at taking on Trump in 2020. I’ve found myself fascinated by the likes of one candidate in particular: Andrew Yang.
My fascination with Yang isn’t all-encompassing. As much as I’d like to fall head over heels over his pleas for a universal basic income or any other progressive initiative, Yang’s rhetoric sounds like a hefty bandage attempting to cover up a gaping wound. More often than not, his policies only alleviate issues that really require substantial systematic change from the ground up. Even worse is the fact that he’s made attempts at courting the wrong kind of alt-right bacteria from the dark corners of the internet.
But what’s interesting to me is that out of a growing list of mostly unrecognizable faces in suits, Yang has staked his claim as the only 2020 candidate completely focused on addressing the issues brought about by present-day technology and the corporate behemoths that control it.
In a series of questionable attempts at reaching out to a younger and Blacker audience, Yang was one of several Democratic candidates to drone on about their platforms on The Breakfast Club back in March. In between pointless interjections by Charlamagne Tha God, Yang referenced a study released in 2017 that predicted the median wealth of Black Americans plummeting to zero by 2053. The study, led by Prosperity Now and the Institute for Policy Studies, cited the ghosts of well-known racist housing and economic policies as the wedge behind the widening racial wealth gap.
Though I doubt their authenticity, wannabe harbingers like Yang are at least partially correct in their calls to action on issues like this. White wealth made a comeback as the collective wealth of Black communities was decimated after the financial crisis, and the trend is only set to worsen without intervention. Rapid innovations in science and technology, if left unchecked, will only fan the flames of inequality. At the pace we’re going, the fully automated Jetsons-esque version of the American dream will be just as anti-Black as it is today.
All you need is a brief moment to imagine this bleak world of tomorrow, where the automated means of transportation aimed at making the roads safer may pose just as much a physical threat to Black people as it does to our livelihoods. In the next decade the civil service jobs that once provided Black people some semblance of economic freedom during the second half of the 20th century — thanks to strong unions and anti-discrimination ordinances — will disappear.
“Automation poses a disproportionate threat to the economic well-being of black America because this social group is predominantly employed in low-skilled occupations that are vulnerable to workplace technological innovations—like those employed in the manufacturing, trucking, retail, and the telecommunications industries,” Katrinell Davis, a sociologist at Florida State University, said in an interview with The Atlantic.
Back in December of 2017, the Columbus bus driver’s union expressed their disapproval at plans by the Central Ohio Transit Authority to deploy a fleet of driverless buses on the streets by 2025. Andrew Jordan, the president of the 810-member union, made it clear that the loss of jobs “would be devastating in the African-American community as predominantly the bus drivers are African-American.”
Within the disenfranchised parts of this forthcoming AI-managed metropolis, police will still roam Black neighborhoods, justifying their supposed crusade against all crime — no matter how minor — by relying on lines of code in place of implicit bias. Like something out of Minority Report, all facets of the criminal justice system, from patrolling to prosecution, could be influenced in part by proprietary algorithms sold as impartial dispensers of justice.
Presently, such programs—which are already in use by police departments around the world—are no more accurate than and feed off the biases of humans. It’s common for these systems of predictive policing to misclassify you “as high risk if you’re African American” and “as low risk if you’re white,” Lyria Bennet Moses, an associate professor of law at The University of New South Wales in Australia, explained on the BBC podcast The Inquiry.
And what of the Black people who end up battered by this expansive police state? Do the same healing hands that mend our white counterparts tend to our wounds? Luckily, the ubiquity of the internet might very well allow telehealth services to fill in the gaps in medical access in underserved communities. Still, Black communities seem skeptical of the legitimacy and efficacy of such treatment due to the “legacy of past abuses such as medical experimentation on slaves and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.”
And personalized medicine tailored to an individual’s genes will remain out of reach for those of African descent because of severe blindspots in the collection and analysis of nonwhite DNA. At best, the descendents of spit-and-send services like 23andMe and AncestryDNA might keep pumping out half-assed results to anyone trying to piece together their background. At worst, they may continue to propagate dangerous views regarding race to white nationalist groups and assist in creating criminalizing databases for law enforcement.
Even though I want nothing more than this dour vision of the near future to be a fantasy, all signs point to the opposite. The digital divide between Black people and whites is still wide and the pipelines that lead many towards a career in coding are still sorely lacking for Black voices. Some that have already worked on the campuses of big tech companies like Facebook report hostility not only in the workplace but also in the surrounding Bay area.
In his 1993 article “Black to the Future,” author and critic Mark Dery — the first to coin the term “Afrofuturism” — asked:
“Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?”
While narratives imagining an inclusive future for Black people can be empowering, a healthy dose of skepticism must be maintained. If the past has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t rely on figures like Yang to properly address our grievances under the current political system. Government oversight does little without us organizing at the ground level. In addition to making our voices heard in traditional circles, we must carve out a niche for ourselves through education and community empowerment. One foot must always be firmly planted in the future while the fight continues today.
Dalvin Aboagye is a freelance writer and student at Stony Brook University. His work runs the gamut in terms of subject matter but he’s particularly focused on dissecting the meaning behind different media.