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.Jim Code

W. Kamau Bell uses Afrofuturism to take on white supremacist algorithms

Afrofuturism is often associated with arts and entertainment, but at its core is the question of representation not just in the future, but in the building of that future. As technology accelerates, so does the surveillance state, and instances of racial bias are already occurring in new tech ranging from facial recognition to voter verification.

Facebook continues to face criticisms of anti-Blackness for banning activists speaking out against white supremacy, while being overly cautious with the actual offenders. The digital divide is still not conquered, and what is now known as “algorithmic violence” may be the biggest civil rights struggle of our time.

“Who owns these tech companies?” W. Kamau Bell asks. “White—I mean What—do they look like?”

In this week’s United Shades of America, W. Kamau Bell approached Afrofuturism from a perspective that may have been overlooked without him.

Bell went to Atlanta to explore the lack of equity and representation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) saying, “This is not just an episode of television; this is a recruitment video. Black folks: We need you to be scientists, technologists, engineers, mathematicians and future imagineers. We have these already, but we need a lot more.”

Bell spoke with programmers who not only deal with work-place discrimination, but also fight against biases baked into the programs themselves. “The code is only as unbiased as the person who wrote it,” was repeated, in several iterations, throughout the show.

Black women statisticians explained voter suppression and how voter rolls can be purged of names and zip codes associated with Black and Brown people through a “color-blind” algorithm, while mathematicians from Moorehouse use Afrofuturism to recruit young scientists for a much larger struggle for a future that “will require all people with all backgrounds to join the fight,” as Bell put it, envisioning “a diversified STEM force to help create it, and activists and everyday people to make sure our leaders recognize the importance of addressing this very pernicious issue.”

In the early 2000’s, Oakland was eyed as a potential tech hub, much like the Atlanta that Bell covered in this episode. Always a vibrant city, Bell managed to capture much of that Black futurist energy in the Atlanta artists, scientists and theorists, illuminating like minds, but on different timelines.

“Since 2018—the legendary cinematic season of Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting and The Black Panther—the world has known what Oakland always knew. Black folks in Oakland live in that Afrofuturistic world everyday,” Bell said. “In our minds, in our streets and in pushing for a future where we take up more and more space. And, no. I don’t live in Berkeley anymore. I live in The Town!”

New episodes of “United Shades of America” air on CNN Sunday at 10pm.
D. Scot Miller
Managing Editor of The East Bay Express, Former Associate Editor of Oakland Magazine and Alameda Magazine, Columnist-In-Residence at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)'s Open Space, Advisory Board Member of Nocturnes Journal of Literary Arts, and regular contributor to several newspapers, websites and magazines. Miller is the founder of The Afrosurreal Arts Movement through his publication of The Afrosurreal Manifesto in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 20, 2009.
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