My Fall 2021 class at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, Race and Technology, surveyed key topics in the relationship between race and technology. In four weeks, we looked at how historical race science shapes modern technology, digital media, medical technologies, and new theories about the relationships between race and technology.
“Technology, from slave ships to voting machines, has always played a role in the subjugation and control of black people.” So writes sociologist Rayvon Fouché, reflecting on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the “technological failure” of the New Orleans levees. Across contexts like media, medicine, infrastructure, and labor, technologies, both old and new, too often seem like tools for the sorting, control, and oppression of racialized people, and not pathways to liberation. How did things come to be this way? Can, and should, technology be “neutral”? Why does it seem so hard to bend technology toward ensuring freedom and justice in the modern world?
In this class, we will draw on history, sociology, and critical algorithm studies to interrogate the role that technology plays in logics of racism and racial oppression. We will start by diving into the historical roots of race and race science, with a focus on how emerging technologies structured the development of modern ideas about race and how scholars are revisiting these histories today. From there, we will examine how medical technologies, workplace technologies, and digital media platforms continue to reinscribe—and occasionally reinvent—racial categories and hierarchies. At the same time, we’ll explore practical and theoretical counterexamples, particularly feminist and anti-racist thinkers and labs that are co-opting oppressive tools for liberatory applications. Readings will include research by leading contemporary scholars like Ruha Benjamin, Sareeta Amrute, Alondra Nelson, and André Brock, as well as classic works by Frantz Fanon and Karl Marx.