Computing Technology as Racial Infrastructure: A History of the Present & Blueprint for Black Future(s)


July 28, 2021


Dr. Charlton McIlwain


Vice Provost, and Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU


In recent years computing technology stakeholders have increasingly begun to ask questions about how to make our technology less biased, more fair, increasingly equitable, and even explicitly anti-racist. When it comes to how to make this happen, however, we have fewer answers than we do questions — particularly when it comes to thinking about these challenges through the lens of race and ethnicity. If we are to imagine, conceptualize, design and build new technological systems that are anti-racist, the technology community must understand, engage and grapple with the historical paths that lead us to our current point. Our history contains many of the starting points for realizing a significantly different technological future.

For the past decade I have investigated a variety of questions at the juncture of race and technology— from how does racial inequality manifest on the Internet, to how do activists, advocates, and lay citizens mobilize technology affordances to produce racial justice movements, to what is the historical relationship between Black people and technology? This final question serves as the basis for my presentation, which provides a historical narrative that demonstrates how computing technology as an enterprise “became racist” and how it has served to promote racist outcomes.

Audiences will come away from my talk with more insight into how computing technology and race first fused to one another; how that fusion manifests in terms of a key technology problem-design-solution scenario that positioned BIPOC communities as the central problems that new technologies were meant to solve; how this race-as-problem-tech-as-solution scenario laid the foundation for our present-day technology infrastructure that has produced arguably the most racially disparate and destructive outcomes through the institution of law enforcement and policing; and finally, what we must do in order to begin to imagine what systemic, structural technological change might look like— one that provides the infrastructure for more racially just outcomes.

Learning Materials

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Dr. Charlton McIlwain

Charlton McIlwain is the Author of Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, From the Afronet to Black Lives Matter. He is Vice Provost, and Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU. His work investigates the intersections of race and computing technology. He has served as an expert witness in landmark U.S. Federal Court cases on reverse redlining/racial targeting in mortgage lending, and recently testified before Congress about the impacts of automation and artificial intelligence on the financial services industry. McIlwain founded the Center for Critical Race & Digital Studies and heads NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology.