By Naamu Harvey
Wait, technology can perpetuate racism? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. The technology we use every day often perpetuates racism and this occurrence can go unnoticed by most. Most technology is designed, created, and tested in systems and institutions that have been marked by entrenched discrimination. This new fight for racial equality in the tech world is called techno-racism While this may be a new phenomenon, it has already snuck itself into some of the technology we encounter every day.
Techno-racism describes a phenomenon in which the racism experienced by people of color is encoded in the technical systems used in our everyday lives. The term developed in 2019, when a member of a Detroit civilian police commission used it to describe flawed facial recognition systems that confuse African American faces. These new digital technologies can implicitly or explicitly exacerbate existing biases about race, ethnicity, and national origin. In fact, even when developers and users do not intend for technology to discriminate, it often does so despite one’s intention. Technology is not neutral or objective, it is fundamentally shaped by the racial, ethnic, gender and other inequalities prevalent in society, and typically makes these inequalities worse.
So, you might be wondering where do we see techno-racism? Well, facial recognition systems, algorithms, photography and photo retouching apps, and targeted ads are all examples. Facial recognition is more than just the latest cool update on your new iPhone. It’s commonly used by law enforcement to identify and locate potential suspects. However, this technology frequently misidentifies people of color—10 to 100 times more frequently than White Americans.  For example, a false facial recognition match sent a New Jersey man to jail for crimes he did not commit. Nijeer Parks, an African American, spent 11 days behind bars in 2019 after a facial recognition system mistakenly matched him with a fake ID left at a crime scene. The match was enough for prosecutors and a judge to sign off on a warrant for Parks’ arrest. There are several other stories just like this one, these new technological devices are causing adverse effects in innocent people’s lives.
Another such tool is the mortgage algorithms used by online lenders to determine rates for loan applicants. These algorithms continue to use flawed historical data from a period when African Americans could not own property. In 2019, a study by UC Berkeley researchers found that mortgage algorithms show the same bias to African American and Hispanic borrowers as human loan officers. These biases cost minority groups roughly half a billion dollars more in interest every year, compared to others. African American content creators on the popular social media app, TikTok, too have complained about the racial bias they encounter with the app’s algorithm. Could this phenomenon be affecting other social media apps too?
New technology continues to be developed and enhanced as our society progresses. But how can we combat techno-racism before it takes over? Well, one way is to hire and train more diverse tech professionals. Welcoming more diverse voices in tech, will aid in the process of uncovering discrete biases. That means thinking critically about the ways racial bias can affect our content, committing to anti-racism work, asking hard questions, and dedicating ourselves to amplifying the voices of minority creators and designers. In 2019, federal lawmakers introduced the Algorithmic Accountability Act, which requires companies to review and fix computer algorithms that lead to inaccurate, unfair or discriminatory decisions. The act is still in the works and has yet to be passed. With the growing age of technology, the legal ramifications of techno-racism may become a bigger issue sooner rather than later. But, if we combat the problem now, we can protect people from this new form of inequality.
 Olga Akselrod, How Artificial Intelligence Can Deepen Racial and Economic Inequalities, Aclu (July 13, 2021), https://www.aclu.org/news/privacy-technology/how-artificial-intelligence-can-deepen-racial-and-economic-inequities.
 Faith Karimi, People of color have a new enemy: techno-racism, Cnn (May 9, 2021, 8:21 AM), https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/09/us/techno-racism-explainer-trnd/index.html.
 Karimi, supra note 2.
 4 Examples of Racism in Technology and What We Can Do About It, Tgw Studio (Aug 5, 2021), https://tgwstudio.com/4-examples-of-racism-in-technology-and-what-we-can-do-about-it/.
 Karimi, supra note 2.
 See Tgw Studio, supra note 9.