“How does one explain to two little girls that a computer got it wrong, but the police listened to it anyway?” Those were the words of Robert Williams, a Black man in Farmington Hills, Michigan arrested after facial recognition technology erroneously suggested him as a suspect. Williams is thought to be the first known wrongful arrest involving facial recognition technology. As Black people continue to wrestle with the implications of racism in the criminal justice system, this can’t come at a worse time. Advocacy in the courts is necessary but Black tech must also provide solutions.
Automatic soap dispensers often fail to recognize Black hands. While somewhat comical, it points to a larger problem in the tech world, the severe shortage of Black talent. Ultimately, Black people cannot and should not look to white venture capitalists or tech firms for “inclusion.” Rather, Black people must take seriously the role of tech in our world now and without question, in the future. As Black people fight to take back the beauty supply industry, produce essentials for their communities like laundry detergent and clothing, tech must not be neglected. Further, the movement in Black tech must be rooted in, funded by and sustained by Black institutions. Black tech must answer the problems of Black people first and foremost and that cannot be done, ultimately, if funded by non-Black sources.
Technology must serve the interests of Black people. The development and use of technology should foster economic growth, wealth, political advancement and self determination. Black tech must answer the concerns of Black people or it will attain a status of irrelevancy, on par with the average Wall Street hedge fund. The goal of education should not be to produce Black scholars who will solve the problems of other communities. In the same way, Black entrepreneurs in tech cannot make their highest aspiration to solve the problems of Microsoft: not when technology is being weaponized against Black people. Black people, in every arena, must make their primary concern the advancement of their community.
What happened to Robert Williams should be a wakeup call. Indeed, the use of technology, as a weapon against Black people, cannot be tolerated. Further, Black people cannot look to others to advance tech, in a way more equitable to Black people. Black people and institutions must teach, train, fund and advance tech innovation for the collective. Looking to others to solve the problems of your own community, based on the history, isn’t a viable strategy.