futures of computing at HBCUs

A lot of people are rightly questioning the racism and immense capacity for harm inherent in the computing platforms that are such an integral part of our lives.

The anti-Black racism that is “baked in” to these systems has resulted in false arrest, algorithmic redlining, the continuation of anti-Black family separation policies, and racially biased advertising on Facebook. Ranking algorithms on Facebook have promoted human trafficking, which has had tragic consequences for African victims.

In addition to the harms inflicted upon Black people by platform technologies, the hiring and promotion practices inside of the institutions that produce these technologies (corporate, academic, governmental) create hostile environments for Black technologists evidenced by the high profile firing of Dr. Timnit Gebru from Google, and the recent firing of B. Pagels-Minor at Netflix.

So the technologies themselves have been weaponized against Black communities, the institutional centers of power that create the technologies continue to exclude Black participation, and the price of critique is often dismissal. Dr. Ruha Benjamin labels this network of oppression The New Jim Code (it’s really not so new) in her book Race After Technology

Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) could play a critical role in dismantling Jim Code. While HBCUs aren’t the only options that Black people have for developing skills in computing (nor should they) these institutions do produce 37% of the Black computer science graduates and they are spaces that could be used to investigate and explore creative ways of reformulating computing technologies.

This isn’t a radical idea. Everybody cites George Washington Carver during Black History Month. The Tuskegee Institute agricultural scientist focused his career on developing technologies to improve the lives of Black farmers. In so doing, his inventions were largely responsible for saving the southern agricultural economy in the early 20th century.

So with that let me share some suggestions

  1. Make ethics core to all CS instruction. We need to develop in our students the capacity to ask if a given system should be built, to ask what are the impacts of the technology upon the lives of Black people. Many times our students won’t be able to change the systems they are developing, but we want to develop students who can at least ask important questions and suggest viable alternatives.
  2. Divest from Carceral and Military Funding. Policing and the computing technologies that support it including facial recognition and predictive policing continue to do immense harm to our communities. Military technologies including autonomous drone warfare and surveillance are used upon Black communities throughout the African diaspora. Decision making tools employed by state “foster care” services are used to separate Black families and have left Black children exposed to abuse, neglect, and death. HBCUs could be an important source of research into technologies that sustain and nurture Black life. Consider the pioneering work of The Black Alliance for Peace.
  3. Support student’s ability to survive hostile environments. “Tech” which is mostly understood by the mass media as places that evolved out of Silicon Valley or particular “start up scenes” largely hostile spaces with respect to Black computing professions. Black institutions ranging from high schools to coding camps to colleges may be great at producing graduates but how do we nurture the processes through which students comprehend and thrive in computing? HBCUs could encourage ethnographies of the Employee Resource Groups and other internal structures that sustain Black life in these spaces. They could conduct extensive audits of Tech companies provide guidelines to students and professionals in and outside of HBCUs. More importantly, they can provide students practicums on how to find sustainable spaces, how to build them in hostile environments
  4. Create new methodologies of software development. The methodologies of software engineering now assume that all processes are located within an organization and occur between people who are working within siloed groups. If colleges and other institutions are interested in developing software that is transparent, responsive to community needs, leverages the wide array of knowledge available within the community, then how can we chart new ways of engaging with the larger community in the development of impactful computational technology? Needed advances in data set curation and model accountability — central to developing safe machine learning and AI technologies — hinge upon these processes.
  5. Develop new models of corporate and institutional structure. In the current landscape, platform technology corporation as well as PWIs co-create white supremacy and structural racism. Current models of the corporation serve to reify power relationships that are based on cis-male gender identity, heteronormity, ablelism, citizenship status, language fluency, ageism, credential-ism, and many other markers of white-adjacency. Black entrepreneurs need introduction to other modes of business and institutional organization (e.g. worker owned cooperatives); alternatives to venture capital; and community based notions of ownership (land as well as intellectual property). Ideally, the educators are involved with students in a a collaborative co-creation of new forms of business structure.
  6. Center technology upon the needs of the community. In all of my suggestions, the one thread is the centering of the Black community in the development of new perspectives on computing. What would a curriculum look like that evolves out of dialog between community members, artists, activists, philosophers, sociologists? The pioneering work at Data for Black Lives comes to mind.

There are so many futures that are possible. Let’s start someplace.

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