Since the originally owed “forty acres,” Black Americans have fought to demand the deserved reparations for free labor through slavery. In the centuries since the impacts of slavery have permeated to every industry and institution, and as the calls for reparations have grown exponentially, we are now closer to reparative justice than ever before.
As the principles of reparations have remained since its 17th-century origin, it’s just as important to adapt the political goals with the political context. Technology, and subsequent surveillance, is an essential part of our lives that must be intertwined in conversations regarding reparations in the 21st century.
The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, also known as HR40, was initially introduced in 1989 by Representative John Coyers. After 32 years, the Bill finally surpassed the Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Liberties and Civil Rights to be voted on the house floor for a vote.
And in those 32 years, the integration of technological advancements has been ingrained into every level of society. At the same time, racism and systemic bias have followed these forms of technology. Algorithmic bias, disproportionate surveillance and targeted privacy infringements have entirely shifted the ways in which communities operate and thrive. As we collectively reach greater strides toward actualizing reparations in our lifetime, it is imperative that this form of justice aims to address the ongoing systemic damage.
Since the emergence of social media and targeted advertising, Black users have been shut out of housing and employment opportunities. Facebook and Google’s ad delivery algorithms were found to shut out Black people from advertisements for certain jobs and homes in specific neighborhoods. High-tech surveillance, like police drones, is often introduced and tested in predominantly Black communities and cities. Facial recognition technology used by law enforcement frequently fails to differentiate darker-skinned people.
Regardless of the benefits these kinds of technological advancements have provided, the detriments against Black people as corporations “work out their operational kinks” are undeniable.
New programs and initiatives have already been introduced around the country while President Biden stalls. Organizations and municipalities on the ground are taking matters into their own hands by launching housing grant programs and community reparations. However, reliance on lineage-based programs provide another conundrum surrounding the reliance on technology to achieve liberation.
These programs begin to require genetic or ancestral information to prove connection to those formerly enslaved. Understanding the exploitation and impact of Black people through the majority of technological developments, it’s no surprise these programs could further harm Black people. Companies like 23andMe have historically entered deals with third-party organizations working to exploit the genetic information collected. Lineage-based programs with “proof” requirements only continue to jeopardize the privacy and genetic integrity of Black communities.
The dream of reparations may not be simply a dream for much longer — legislative developments could very quickly bring justice for the legacy of slavery into reality. However, we must remind a technologically dependent culture that we cannot program or code our liberation into fruition. As time continues to progress, we must ensure that we do not rely on the same tools that once depleted our communities to somehow serve as remedies, too. A future rooted in reparative justice is one that acknowledges the systemic harm and injustices at all levels of society while mitigating the impact of the systems’ damage. Only then can justice truly be prioritized in an equitable culture for all.
Written by Amanda Jackson, Economic Justice Campaign Director, Color Of Change