a journal of modern society & culture

The Algorithm of AntiRacism

Joy James

Hegemonic Algorithms

An algorithm can be as simple as a brownie or kombucha recipe. As a list of instructions it permits the completion of a task. Yet, what if the task—social justice—requires rewriting the algorithms we have inherited in our struggles against US racism?

In its June 19, 2020, “CALLING ON FACEBOOK CORPORATE ADVERTISERS TO PAUSE ADS FOR JULY 2020,” https://colorofchange.org/stop-hate-for-profit/ Color of Change argues for the multi-billionaire corporation: “to do the right thing and make their platform safer for the millions of Black people that use it.” Color of Change argues that from their “monetization of hate speech to discrimination in their algorithms to the proliferation of voter suppression to the silencing of Black voices, Facebook has refused to take responsibility for hate, bias, and discrimination growing on their platforms.” Corporate investment allowed the platform to accumulate “$70B of revenue from corporations every year,” according to Color of Change which argues that given that these investors could have “their businesses featured on Facebook’s platforms side-by-side with racist attacks on Black people” —an incendiary association following the public’s growing awareness of police/vigilante murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor —a boycott to demand Facebook to monitor and remove hate speech was reasonable. The demand to dismantle Facebook as a monopoly that violated public interest and (antiquated) anti-trust legislation was not made. (In July 2020, Congress held hearings on the tech titans Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon with conservatives decrying “censorship” and liberals seeking to reinvigorate anti-trust laws.)

The important call to hold Facebook accountable—as a platform that boosts revenues by promoting social/political violence—threatens to “shame” Facebook into progressive neutrality by diminishing its stock value. Just as Facebook has an algorithm of racism, an algorithm of anti-racism is deployed to correct it. However, the progressive algorithm of antiracism aligns with rather than disrupts the reactionary algorithm of Facebook’s racism. Both are structured to the same metric or metaparadigm. Both monetize their endeavors, amplify influential platforms to please funders, and reassure the general public of a stable (democratic) structure that can accommodate the “common good” without the need for revolutionary struggle. It is not just the corporate ethos or deference to capitalism that structures the two antagonists. It is the selective memory of the history of antiracism that joins the two to define the parameters of popularized anti-racist struggle.

The dominant algorithm for antiracism and contemporary abolitionism are traceable to 18th-century abolitionism. In Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, historian Vincent Brown notes:

Slaveholders cited black militancy as a justification for their brutality. In response, late-eighteenth-century abolitionists would rally around the image of a kneeling supplicant begging to be recognized as a man and a brother; as if the condemnation of evil required the meek innocence of its victims. That icon of abjection has shaped the prevailing understanding of bondage and race to this day.

Some 200,000 Black Americans fought in the civil war. The dominant algorithm rejects analyses of slavery-as- actual War (not a metaphor for War.) Analyses of white supremacy and captivity as War extend to postbellum lynching, convict prison lease system, sharecropping, Cointelpro, and mass incarceration. Terror is a technique of warfare and functions within asymmetrical War (e.g., US-funded contras

Who Was Naive About Bernie Sanders Meeting the Sandinistas?
). The dominant algorithm of antiracism airbrushes war; thus rebellions become “protests” that can be resolved in the dominate algorithm rather than revolutionary struggles that require the rewriting of the Algorithm of AntiRacism.

Glitches in the Algorithm

The popularized algorithm elevates passive black suffering over black militancy and resistance and thus has stymied the development of an  algorithm of community-defense from violence of civilians or police. Prominent abolitionists lived among and fought with the black working class and laboring poor—those most vulnerable to poverty, captivity and violent death. Today, the wealth of black elites and concept of black success under capitalism as “Black Power” skew solidarity struggles as liberal hegemony and investment portfolios shape anti-racist politics and policies. Archie Mafege’s “White Liberals and Black Nationalists: Strange Bedfellows”[1] argues that general hegemony is “opposed to any real change in power relations” because in Southern Africa powerful progressives areprepared to be ruled by” others yet “reserve the right to reign.” Derrick Bell’s “interest convergence” theory likewise argues that US civil rights gains progressed when compatible to the needs of elites. The ban on the ANC was lifted in 1990, the year that Nelson Mandela was formally released from prison. In 1993, General Secretary of the South African Communist Party—and chief of staff of ANC uMkhonto we Sizwe (founded by Nelson Mandela) Chris Hani was assassinated in his driveway. His popularity equaled that of Mandela’s among the black electorate. Six months after Hani’s death, Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem De Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize (President Obama received his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009). If most Americans will remember 1993 as the year that Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the symbol of black success as a victory in antiracism likely overshadows Hani’s murder which preceded the lack of redistribution of land/resources to the South African masses.

The dominant algorithm minimizes wars against dissidents and their disappearances. Cointelpro’s historical deployment under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and its current deployment under AG William Barr is under-emphasized in the algorithm of anti-Racism. The proliferation of conservative/reactionary prosecutors and Attorneys General and judges (POTUS 45 has appointed over 200 to the bench) that protect police violence, tools designated for horizontal or communal/family violence—education and therapeutic intervention—do not seem effective. Pro Publica use of declassified NYPD substantiated abuses reveal predatory behavior rewarded with promotions and pay increases. The rise in gun violence and civilian homicides in NYC is accompanied by the NYPD’s 68% decrease in arrests in black/brown neighborhoods, those most afflicted by civilian and cop violence. The FBI’s “IRON FIST” (a titular reference to the Iron Cross?) program conducts surveillance and persecution of dissidents, focusing on its fabricated “black identity extremists.” https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/leaked-fbi-documents-raise-concerns-about-targeting-black-people-under-black-identi-1.

The casualties from trauma and stress of waging a social justice battle for one’s loved ones slain by police is also noteworthy. Activist Erica Garner created a brilliant campaign ad against police violence for Bernie Sanders—following the 2014 Staten Island police homicide of her father, Eric Garner. The young mother and activist challenged President Obama, Governor Cuomo, and Mayor de Blasio whose performative politics of reform were compatible with the Algorithm of Anti-Racism. Ms. Garner transitioned in 2017 from poor health and exhaustion exacerbated by the stress of seeking justice for her father and lack of quality care (like so many expendable “essential workers” during the pandemic). The repeal of 50-a, the law that shields a police officer’s record of abuse(s), according to NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, is the only substantive reform that followed 2020 civil unrest over police brutality. Shea has described the passage and signing of the “Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act” as having no impact on the status quo given conduct codes already on the books; NYPD union attorneys currently challenge the release of police misconduct files to the public.

Although the radical Erica Garner is rarely mentioned in dominant platforms concerning BLM and black women’s leadership, the algorithm of anti-racism asserts black feminist leadership as heir of past political rebellions. The algorithm’s mandate for “Black feminist leadership” under-scrutinizes ideology as a vector in the intersectionality it promotes. Bush NSA and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deceived the public about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq under the Bush Administration, and advocated for Brett Kavanaugh to have a seat on the Supreme Court during the Trump Administration https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2rbuW69n9A. Obama Ambassador to the UN and NSA Susan Rice hindered UN peacekeepers from intervening in the Rwandan genocide https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/16/genocide-under-our-watch-rwanda-susan-rice-richard-clarke/. More recently, black women mayors rejected substantive police reforms or divestment. Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s first black lesbian mayor, informed the press that she refused to engage in “racial bias” by cutting CPD ranks—historically known for excessive violence (including a Jon Burge black op torture site) and murders of civilians; Lightfoot argued that disproportionately younger black and brown officers would be laid off and lose their opportunity to become middle class. NYS AG Letitia James appealed the release of a black panther political prisoner incarcerated for 49 years (sentencing guidelines were 25-to-life) after a superior judge ordered his release so that he would not contact covid-19. Her appeal prevailed. The panther veteran contracted covid-19. The appeal set a precedent for not releasing elderly incarcerated people threatened by the pandemic (Judges without documentation accepted DOCCS arguments that it could prevent the spread of covid-19 among the 40,000 people incarcerated in NY).

Conclusion

Brood parasites nest in the Algorithm of AntiRacism. Brood parasites are birds who lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, disguising them as the progeny of those who labor to incubate and hatch an alien product. The bright yellow lettering of “Black Lives Matter” painted by DC and NYC mayors on their respective roads to the White House and Manhattan’s Trump Tower function more as a campaign or PR slogan and photo op for politicians who refuse to reign in their violent police forces (that the DC mayor is a liberal black feminist and that the NYC mayor is married to a black feminist provides a visual that supposes brood parasitism is unlikely. However, given that “BLM” is a slogan and has not been repurposed to stand for “Black Liberation Movements” suggests that politicians and corporations are comfortable with the Algorithm of AntiRacism that stabilizes and promotes their interests.

In the 21st century, we remain tethered to an 18th century algorithm, one not designed for revolutionary struggle or even black freedom. Chattel slavery is now replaced by penal slavery given that the 13th amendment legalizes slave labor for those duly convicted of a crime. A remedy to address crass accumulation through immorality, terror, and racial-sexual war? A recipe to stabilize political-economic order and moral-social conduct sans rapacious wars against the indigenous and Africans/blacks? Our current hegemonic algorithms do not function to meet our collective needs. “#Defund the Police” (or divesting and diverting resources to social services—also a policing apparatus) is an imperative. Yet, if the demand reflects the reforms advocated for Facebook—leave the behemoth intact, better regulated, but outside of the control of disenfranchised communities—what we are hatching is alien to our needs.

We can labor and battle to rewrite the Algorithm of AntiRacism to create sanctuary for all children. Our ambition would rework all codes. Our recipes would provide sanctuaries to children— especially those without legal status. Address the needs of dispossessed Haitians: over 40% of those detained by ICE are from Haiti. Confront predatory violence in US foreign and domestic policies to allow families to live without trauma. At the Karnes ICE center, in San Antonio, TX, 40% of the captive women and children are Haitians. The average age of Haitian children caged there is four years; policies force mothers to “choose” between signing their children into custodial (foster) care with strangers or keeping them indefinitely imprisoned during a pandemic. Who can safely return to a Haiti freed by rebellion yet taxed and looted by France (and forced to pay torturers/rapists for “lost property.” https://theconversation.com/when-france-extorted-haiti-the-greatest-heist-in-history-137949); and dispossessed by US occupations and policies; and NGOs that create white collar jobs and managerial elites and profiteers in an impoverished nation that struggles with a pandemic without a medical infrastructure yet was the first successful rebellion against slavery. https://nacla.org/news/2020/06/09/behind-covid-numbers-haiti. Local, national, global sanctuaries: an excellent impetus and vision to jettison old algorithms and create new ones for this century and its children.


[1] Archie Mafeje, “White Liberals and Black Nationalists: Strange Bedfellows,” AFRICA Review, December 1998, Vol. 11. No. 13, 45.  

Ebenezer Fitch Professor of the Humanities at Williams College, Joy James works with the bius https://abolitionjournal.org/bius/ Her writings include: “Airbrushing Revolution for the Sake of Abolition” https://www.aaihs.org/airbrushing-revolution-for-the-sake-of-abolition/ and “’Sorrow, Tears and Blood’” https://www.viewpointmag.com/2015/01/26/sorrow-tears-and-blood-black-activism-fractionation-and-the-talented-tenth/