But there is a slippery slope between effective marketing and efficient racism. The same sort of algorithmic filtering that ushers more ethnically tailored representations into my feed can also redirect real estate ads away from people “like me.” This filtering has been used to show higher-paying job ads to men more often than to women, to charge more for standardized test prep courses to people in areas with a high density of Asian residents, and many other forms of coded inequity. In cases of the second type especially, we observe how geographic segregation animates the New Jim Code. While the gender wage gap and the “race tax” (non-Whites being charged more for the same services) are nothing new, the difference is that coded inequity makes discrimination easier, faster, and even harder to challenge, because there is not just a racist boss, banker, or shopkeeper to report. Instead, the public must hold accountable the very platforms and programmers that legally and often invisibly facilitate the New Jim Code, even as we reckon with our desire for more “diversity and inclusion” online and offline.
Taken together, all these features of the current era animate the New Jim Code. While more institutions and people are outspoken against blatant racism, discriminatory practices are becoming more deeply embedded within the sociotechnical infrastructure of everyday life. Likewise, the visibility of successful non-White individuals in almost every social arena can obscure the reality of the systemic bias that still
affects many people. Finally, the proliferation of ever more sophisticated ways to use ethnicity in marketing goods, services, and even political messages generates more buy-in from those of us who may not want to “build” an ethnicity but who are part of New Jim Code architecture nevertheless.
The Anti-Black Box Race after Technology integrates the tools of science and technology studies (STS) and critical race studies to examine coded inequity and our contemporary racial landscape. Taken together within the framework of what I term race critical code studies, this approach helps us open the Black box of coded inequity. “Black box” is a metaphor commonly used in STS to describe how the social production of science and technology is hidden from view. For example, in The Black Box Society, legal scholar Frank Pasquale (2014) interrogates the “secret algorithms” that are fundamental to businesses, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, and criticizes how the law is used to aggressively protect commercial secrecy while ignoring our right to privacy.69 His use of the term “Black box” draws on its double meaning, as recording device and as mysterious object; and here I recast this term to draw attention to the routine anti-Blackness that inheres in so much tech development. What I call the anti-Black box links the race-neutral technologies that encode inequity to the race-neutral laws and policies that serve as powerful tools for White supremacy.
An example is the Trump administration’s proposed “work for welfare” policy, which imposes mandatory work requirements on anyone who receives healthcare benefits through Medicaid. Correction: not anyone. Some Republican-controlled states have found a way to protect poor White Americans from the requirement by instituting a waiver for people living in areas with a high unemployment rate. Taken at face value, this looks like a fair exception and seems to be race-neutral in that it could benefit poorer Americans of all backgrounds. In practice, however, people living in urban centers would not qualify because of their proximity to wealthier suburbs, which pull the overall unemployment rate down for the majority of Black urban residents.