The disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Blacks and the continued violence against Black lives as elucidated in protests responding to the death of George Floyd have thrown light on pervasive systemic racism against Black people in the United States. That extends to the technology industry. Anti-Black racism in technological design abounds, and it cannot go unnoticed and unchallenged.
Consider the evidence: Many wearable heart rate trackers rely on technology that could be less reliable for users with darker skin, which negatively impacts people of color whose employers incentivize employees’ use of fitness trackers with extra vacation days, gear, or even lower health insurance premiums. Recent studies on facial recognition technologies find that many of these systems perform poorly on Black faces, “compounding the problem of racist policing practices and a deeply flawed and harmful criminal justice system,” Joy Buolamwini of the Algorithmic Justice League writes on Medium. Even within the sectors of the tech community that advocate for human-centered design, such as human-computer interaction, little has been done to grapple with racism. “Historically, the human-computer interaction community has not focused on issues of race and ethnicity,” according to a call for participation in a workshop on race at the 2020 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. “In recent years, there has been a growing trickle of interest in studying and engaging with race and ethnicity, but much more must be done.”
The future imagined by Anthony Walton in his 1999 The Atlantic essay, “Technology Versus African-Americans,” has seemingly come to pass. But it can still be changed. To move forward, designers of emerging technology have to prioritize the needs, values, and desires of Black bodies and lives.
In her book Race After Technology, author Ruha Benjamin describes “the employment of new technologies that reflect and reproduce existing inequities but that are promoted and perceived as more objective or progressive than the discriminatory systems of a previous era.” She calls this phenomenon the “New Jim Code”—and design is complicit.
Dismantling the New Jim Code—as with the political and social strategies that Blacks leveraged to combat Jim Crow laws—requires new design perspectives and power paradigms. It requires Black-Centered Design. Black-Centered Design approaches offer a framework by which the nuanced complexities of the Black identity can act as an ethos for creating more equitable and just emerging technological solutions. Ceasar McDowell, professor of civic design within the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, coins it Design for the Margins. In the editorial “Diversity is Not Enough,” McDowell writes that: “The idea here is that if you design an intervention or change to work for (and with) those who are most marginalized, then you inevitably cover them and those who are in the majority. Within the structure of the United States, it is blackness that defines the fundamental marginal group. The marginalization of blacks is in the origin story of this country and the current politics of this country.”
The onus is on designers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders to embrace Black-Centered Design approaches, such as Design for the Margins. It is especially crucial for those working in sectors that disproportionately affect Black Americans, such as healthcare and public safety. Here are three key steps:
1. Embrace design principles that afford the explicit foregrounding of Black lives and bodies.
Over the past few years, many technology companies have made efforts to incorporate diversity and inclusion in their corporate platforms. While laudable, they run the risk of diminishing the role that racism specifically plays in their work. As a recent paper “Critical Race Theory for HCI,” puts it: “as we become concerned with new dimensions of diversity and inclusion, we cannot dilute efforts to address race.” Articulating clear design principles is an important place to start. Check out the BlackSpace Manifesto, the Design Justice Network, and the design practice equityXdesign for guidance. Design lenses such as Afrofuturism can also be used as a catalyst for the difficult, but necessary, conversations and actions. My recent essay in the Journal of Futures Studies shows how such a lens can help design and develop wearable technologies for healthcare.
2. Engage the Black community in technological design.
The Design Justice Network Principles call on designers to develop “community-led” solutions. One simple way to accomplish that is through community design review boards. These can serve as a conduit for engaging and amplifying Black voices within the technology ecosystem. Efforts such as Project al-Khwarizmi by Stephanie Dinkins, the Creative Reaction Lab under the leadership of Antionette D. Carroll, and the Algorithmic Justice League under the leadership of Joy Buolamwini show how to structure and work with a community design review board.
3. Embrace interdisciplinarity in technological design.
Tech designers have to work with social scientists to fully grapple with race and racism. The 2019 article “Everyone’s talking about ethics in AI. Here’s what they’re missing” succinctly articulates why: “Designers are not trained to deeply understand and address the complexity of human social systems. They may appropriate social science methods without knowledge of, or how to apply, the corresponding theories necessary to make sense of collected data. This can be dangerous because it is incomplete and lacks context and cultural awareness.” Lorna Roth‘s work on racial bias in photography highlights the premise. Companies and organizations that rely on designers to be the voice of their users should broaden their talent pool to include social scientists, too.
Designers can dismantle the New Jim Code. If they are intentional in their thoughts and actions, they can help create a world that is more equitable and just. Underscored by current events, the time is both ripe and right for reformation in tech design. Black lives and futures are at stake.
Woodrow W. Winchester, III, is a senior lecturer and director of engineering management in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is also the director of professional development and continuing education for the American Society for Engineering Management (ASEM). Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.