Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Racial Profiling in the Digital Age

What is racial profiling, exactly?  Is it possible for accusations of racial profiling to obscure an underlying issue?  In related news, did you know that computers are racist?

Consider this article from Reuters:
"Professor Finds Profiling in Ads for Personal Data Website" by Adam Tanner

Articles like this make me sick.  But not for the reason most people would think.  Rather, it's because most people get outraged at the symptom and not the root cause.  I can't blame companies for targeting certain names.  The real outrage here is that there is something for them to target at all.  Why is nobody willing to confront the real problem, that blacks commit more crimes?

Let me be clear: The merchants selling these services are not actively targeting "black" names.  Rather, ad placement algorithms place the ads and provide feedback on when users are more likely to click those ads.  Ad campaigns are then targeted to hit certain names, not because merchants are racist or because the ad placement services are racist but because that is how they get results.  That is how they get more bang for their buck.  All driven by the metrics returned by a cold, calculating computer.  In other words, the computers are racist.  (See, and you thought I was kidding.)

Or, more precisely, the computers, the algorithms, are just responding to the choices that users make.  Which would mean that we, as a society, are racist.  Or does it?  Remember, according to the article, "Blacks make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for 28 percent of the arrests listed on the FBI's most recent annual crime statistics."  So is this racism or a rational response to well-known facts?  Seems to me that focusing on the placement of such "racist" ads diverts our attention from the real issue.  Again: Why is nobody willing to confront the real problem, that blacks commit more crimes?

I don't want to sound dismissive.  There may be actual racist reasons that blacks commit more crimes.  Maybe there is some truth behind the notion that blacks don't get a fair shake from society.  But focusing on ads placed by computer algorithms is not going to get us anywhere.

So, is society racist?  Are we racist?  Am I?  I don't tend to subscribe to that view, exactly.  Exactly?  What do I mean by that?  I mean this: I think there is a pervasive form of racism in our society--but it's not the stereotypical racism of the old south.  The racism that I see nowadays is something that has been described as the "soft bigotry of low expectations."  The notion that we can't expect that much of certain people because of their past.  And we're not talking racism in their personal past, mind you, but a past that occurred generations ago.  The notion that it's understandable if certain people don't do well in school or commit more crime.  I find this new form of racism patronizing and repulsive.  The same people that claim to want to end racism are the ones that perpetuate it.

I understand and accept that by writing this people will say that I don't truly understand, that I've never been on the other side of such racism.  But you know what?  If I were I wouldn't use that as an excuse to commit crime or otherwise underachieve.  And I wouldn't let my friends, or my daughters, use that as an excuse either.  I'd expect more, much more, of my fellow human beings.  To paraphrase a famous speech you might have heard of, I would judge a man not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.