Nothing is Inevitable! Main Takeaways from an Event on “Techno-Racism and Human Rights: A Conversation with the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism”

On July 23, 2020, the Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project hosted a virtual event on techno-racism and human rights. The immediate reason for organizing this conversation was a recent report to the Human Rights Council by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism, Tendayi Achiume, on the racist impacts of emerging technologies. The event sought to further explore these impacts and to question the role of international human rights norms and accountability mechanisms in efforts to address these. Christiaan van Veen moderated the conversation between the Special Rapporteur, Mutale Nkonde, CEO of AI for the People, and Nanjala Nyabola, author of Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics.

This event and Tendayi’s report come at a moment of multiple international crises, including a global wave of protests and activism against police brutality and systemic racism after the killing of George Floyd, and a pandemic which, among many other tragic impacts, has laid bare how deeply embedded inequality, racism, xenophobia, and intolerance are within our societies. Just last month, as Tendayi explained during the event, the Human Rights Council held a historic urgent debate on systemic racism and police brutality in the United States and elsewhere, which would have been inconceivable just a few months ago.

The starting point for the conversation was an attempt to define techno-racism and provide varied examples from across the globe. This global dimension was especially important as so many discussions on techno-racism remain US-centric. Speakers were also asked to discuss not only private use of technology or government use within the criminal justice area, but to address often-overlooked technological innovation within welfare states, from social security to health care and education.

Nanjala started the conversation by defining techno-racism as the use of technology to lock in power disparities that are predicated on race. Such techno-racism can occur within states: Mutale discussed algorithmic hiring decisions and facial recognition technologies used in housing in the United States, while Tendayi mentioned racist digital employment systems in South America. But techno-racism also has a transnational dimension: technologies entrench power disparities between States that are building technologies and States that are buying them; Nanjala called this “digital colonialism.”

The speakers all agreed that emerging technologies are consistently presented as agnostic and neutral, despite being loaded with the assumptions of their builders (disproportionately white males educated at elite universities) about how society works. For example, the technologies increasingly used in welfare states are designed with the idea that people living in poverty are constantly attempting to defraud the government; Christiaan and Nanjala discussed an algorithmic benefit fraud detection tool used in the Netherlands, which was found by a Dutch court to be exclusively targeting neighborhoods with low-income and minority residents, as an excellent example of this.

Nanjala also mentioned the ‘Huduma Namba’ digital ID system in Kenya as a powerful example of the politics and complexity underneath technology. She explained the racist history of ID systems in Kenya – designed by colonial authorities to enable the criminalization of black people and the protection of white property – and argued that digitalizing a system that was intended to discriminate “will only make the discrimination more efficient”. This exacerbation of discrimination is also visible within India’s ‘Aadhaar’ digital ID system, through which existing exclusions have been formalized, entrenched, and anesthetized, enabling those in power to claim that exclusion, such as the removal of hundreds of thousands of people from food distribution lists, simply results from the operation of the system rather than from political choices.

Tendayi explained that she wrote her report in part to address her “deep frustration” with the fact that race and non-discrimination analyses are often absent from debates on technology and human rights at the UN. Though she named a report by the Center Faculty Director Philip Alston, prepared in cooperation with the Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project, as one of few exceptions, discussions within the international human rights field remain focused upon privacy and freedom of expression and marginalize questions of equality. But techno-racism should not be an afterthought in these discussions, especially as emerging technologies often exacerbate pre-existing racism and enable a completely different scale of discrimination.

Given the centrality of Tendayi’s Human Rights Council report to the conversation, Christiaan asked the speakers whether and how international human rights frameworks and norms can help us evaluate the implications of techno-racism, and what potential advantages global human rights accountability mechanisms can bring relative to domestic legal remedies. Mutale expressed that we need to ask, “who is human in human rights?” She noted that the racist design of these technologies arises from the notion that Black people are not human. Tendayi argued that there is, therefore, also a pressing need to change existing ways of thinking about who violates human rights. During the aforementioned urgent debate in the Human Rights Council, for example, European States and Australia had worked to water down a powerful draft resolution and blocked the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate systemic racism specifically in the United States, on the grounds that it is a liberal democracy. Mutale described this as another indication that police brutality against Black people in a Western country like the United States is too easily dismissed as not of international concern.

Tendayi concurred and expressed her misgivings about the UN’s human rights system. She explained that the human rights framework is deeply implicated in transnational racially discriminatory projects of the past, including colonialism and slavery, and noted that powerful institutions (including governments, the UN, and international human rights bodies) are often “ground zero” for systemic racism. Mutale echoed this and urged the audience to consider how international human rights organs like the Human Rights Council may constitute a political body for sustaining white supremacy as a power system across borders.

Nanjala also expressed concerns with the human rights regime and its history, but identified three potential benefits of the human rights framework in addressing techno-racism. First, the human rights regime provides another pathway outside domestic law for demanding accountability and seeking redress. Second, it translates local rights violations into international discourse, thus creating potential for a global accountability movement and giving victims around the world a powerful and shared rights-based language. Third, because of its relative stability since the 1940s, human rights legal discourse helps advocates develop genealogies of rights violations, document repeated institutional failures, and establish patterns of rights violations over time, allowing advocates to amplify domestic and international pressure for accountability. Tendayi added that she is “invested in a future that is fundamentally different from the present,” and that human rights can potentially contribute to transforming political institutions and undoing structures of injustice around the world.

In addressing an audience question about technological responses to COVID-19, Mutale described how an algorithm designed to assign scarce medical equipment such as ventilators systematically discounted black patient viability. Noting that health outcomes around the world are consistently correlated with poverty and life experiences (including the “weathering effects” suffered by racial and ethnic minorities), she warned that, by feeding algorithms data from past hospitalizations and health outcomes, “we are training these AI systems to deem that black lives are not viable.” Tendayi echoed this, suggesting that our “baseline assumption” should be that new technologies will have discriminatory impacts simply because of how they are made and the assumptions that inform their design.
In response to an audience member’s concern that governments and private actors will adopt racist technologies regardless, Nanjala countered that “nothing is inevitable” and “everything is a function of human action and agency.” San Francisco’s decision to ban the use of facial recognition software by municipal authorities, for example, demonstrates that the use of these technologies is not inevitable, even in Silicon Valley. Tendayi, in her final remarks, noted that “worlds are being made and remade all of the time” and that it is vital to listen to voices, such as those of Mutale, Nanjala, and the Center’s Digital Welfare State Project, which are “helping us to think differently.” “Mainstreaming” the idea of techno-racism can help erode the presumption of “tech neutrality” that has made political change related to technology so difficult to achieve in the past. Tendayi concluded that this is why it is so vital to have conversations like these.

We couldn’t agree more!

To reflect that this was an informal conversation, first names are used in this story. 

July 29, 2020. Victoria Adelmant, and Adam Ray. 

Adam Ray, JD program, NYU School of Law; Human Rights Scholar with the Digital Welfare State & Human Rights Project in 2020. He holds a Masters degree from Yale University and previously worked as the CFO of Songkick.

Victoria Adelmant, Director of the Digital Welfare State & Human Rights Project at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law.