Tech Ethics, Roaming Autodidacts, and the White-Male Effect

The internet’s “condition of harm” and its direct relation to risk is structural. The tech industry – from venture capitalists to engineers to creative visionaries – is known for its strike-it-rich Wild West individualistic ethos, swaggering risk-taking, and persistent homogeneity. Some of this may be a direct result of the industry’s whiteness and maleness. For more than two decades, studies have found that a specific subset of men, in the U.S. mostly white, with higher status and a strong belief in individual efficacy, are prone to accept new technologies with greater alacrity while minimizing their potential threats – a phenomenon researchers have called the “white-male effect,” a form of cognition that protects status. In the words of one study, the findings expose “a host of new practical and moral challenges for reconciling the rational regulation of risk with democratic decision making.”

Source: The Risk Makers. The nuclear, auto, and food industries… | by Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly | Sep, 2020 | OneZero

That reminds me of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s observations on “roaming autodidacts”.

A roaming autodidact is a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, culture, history, and markets. The roaming autodidact is almost always conceived as western, white, educated and male. As a result of designing for the roaming autodidact, we end up with a platform that understands learners as white and male, measuring learners’ task efficiencies against an unarticulated norm of western male whiteness. It is not an affirmative exclusion of poor students or bilingual learners or black students or older students, but it need not be affirmative to be effective. Looking across this literature, our imagined educational futures are a lot like science fiction movies: there’s a conspicuous absence of brown people and women.

Source: Black Cyberfeminism: Intersectionality, Institutions and Digital Sociology by Tressie McMillan Cottom :: SSRN

I very much resemble the roaming autodidact. Tech and open source are full of us. It took longer than I’d like to admit for me to recognize the white-male effect in my own thinking. “A form of cognition that protects status” is an apt summary, especially for roaming autodidacts who’ve lived and believe the meritocracy myth.

See also:

The Segregationist Discourse

Again, how did the traditional segregationist discourse, trimmed of a few unacceptable phrases, become the dominant discourse in American society by the 1980’s?

Source: The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 2: The Segregationist Discourse and Civil Rights Retrenchment : The Front Porch

Selections from “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism”, “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 2: The Segregationist Discourse and Civil Rights”, and “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America” on segregationist discourse:

If we truly seek to understand segregationists—not to excuse or absolve them, but to understand them—then we must first understand how they understood themselves. … [L]ike all people, they did not think of themselves in terms of what they opposed but rather in terms of what they supported. The conventional wisdom has held that they were only fighting against the rights of others. But, in their own minds, segregationists were instead fighting for rights of their own—such as the “right” to select their neighbors, their employees, and their children’s classmates, the “right” to do as they pleased with their private property and personal businesses, and, perhaps most important, the “right” to remain free from what they saw as dangerous encroachments by the federal government. To be sure, all of these positive “rights” were grounded in a negative system of discrimination and racism. In the minds of segregationists, however, such rights existed all the same. Indeed, from their perspective, it was clearly they who defended individual freedom, while the “so-called civil rights activists” aligned themselves with a powerful central state, demanded increased governmental regulation of local affairs, and waged a sustained assault on the individual economic, social, and political prerogatives of others. The true goal of desegregation, these white southerners insisted, was not to end the system of racial oppression in the South, but to install a new system that oppressed them instead. As this study demonstrates, southern whites fundamentally understood their support of segregation as a defense of their own liberties, rather than a denial of others’. (White Flight, p. 9)

Source: White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Politics and Society in Modern America (89)) (9780691133867): Kruse, Kevin M.

Via: The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 2: The Segregationist Discourse and Civil Rights Retrenchment : The Front Porch

I’ve always found Alabama Governor George Wallace’s 1963 Inaugural Address particularly instructive. Delivered soon after Dr. King moved his operations from Albany to Birmingham, and just a couple months after the mass White riot following the court ordered enrollment of James Meredith in the University of Mississippi, Wallace’s address is a near perfect summary of the traditional segregationist discourse, captured all in one well-articulated speech.

He begins with a theme, consistent with Kruse’s suggestion above, that marks the speech from beginning to end: the struggle against integration was a struggle for freedom.

An easily identifiable list of themes quickly emerges as one listens to the speech, including states’ rights and federalism (the Confederate apologist’s mainstay), free enterprise, freedom of association, the primacy of private property, meritocracy as the goal of the Founders, and the presumption that all opposition is actually communism, tyranny, immorality, and atheism.

Last, as can be seen in the quotes above, segregationists did not consider themselves racists; they loved the “Negro” and wished the best for him—again, according to their own self-assessment. As Wallace stated in a 1968 Meet the Press interview, “Well, of course I don’t know what your definition of racism is. But I’m certainly not a racist.”

These principles, inherited from the Confederacy and refined in the fires of “forced” integration, have proven to be potent political ideals. Simply remove explicit references to “segregation” and much of this ideology predominates to this very day. In his 1964presidential bid, Barry Goldwater won every Deep South state by running on these very principles-as a Republican. Richard Nixon took these principles national in his own 1968presidential victory, though losing the Deep South to Governor Wallace (running third party) alone. But by 1972, Nixon had secured the whole of the South with this rhetoric, in his second term victory.

Finally, we come to the eight-year administration of President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)-the very era in which Critical Race Theory was born. Reagan’s “new conservative” movement hearkened directly back to the campaign of Barry Goldwater, taking Nixon’s conservatism to the next level. Not only did Reagan champion the law and order movement beyond any that had gone before, but he perfected the rhetoric of Southern segregationists like George Wallace. (I’d argue that, with only a handful of deletions, Wallace’s entire Inaugural Address could have been delivered by Ronald Reagan, and quite probably was delivered multiple times in aggregate over the course of his political career.) Every theme discussed above-states’ rights, federalism, radically free enterprise, freedom of association, increased privatization, the mythic view of American meritocracy, and opposition to public assistance, all couched in the polemics of anti-communism and civil religion-were the bases of his fabulously successful 1980 and 1984 campaigns. And, for the most part, these themes were successfully cast in the “race neutral” language of “equal protection under the law” and “color-blindness,” solidifying a new post-civil rights era compromise, viz., the commitment to an idealized formal equality absent the goal of substantive equality.

Source: The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 2: The Segregationist Discourse and Civil Rights Retrenchment : The Front Porch

But take a longer view—follow the story forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century—and a different picture emerges, one that is both a testament to Buchanan’s intellectual powers and, at the same time, the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance.

For what becomes clear as the story moves forward decade by decade is that a quest that began as a quiet attempt to prevent the state of Virginia from having to meet national democratic standards of fair treatment and equal protection under the law would, some sixty years later, become the veritable opposite of itself: a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and the national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.

For all its fine phrases, what this cause really seeks is a return to oligarchy, to a world in which both economic and effective political power are to be concentrated in the hands of a few.

And from the start, as Calhoun’s calculations illustrate, the notion of unwarranted federal intervention has been inseparable from a desire to maintain white racial as well as class dominance. Not surprisingly, then, but with devastating consequences all around, attacks on federal power pitched to nonelites have almost always tapped white racial anxiety, whether overtly or with coded language.

Source: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (pp. xvii, xxxiv, 11)

See also:

The Long Southern Strategy and the Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity

College Admissions Scandals, the New Aristocracy, and the Grading and Ranking of Children

Three reads to go with the college admissions scandal:

One of the hazards of life in the 9.9 percent is that our necks get stuck in the upward position. We gaze upon the 0.1 percent with a mixture of awe, envy, and eagerness to obey. As a consequence, we are missing the other big story of our time. We have left the 90 percent in the dust-and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.

The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.

Source: The Birth of the New American Aristocracy – The Atlantic

These kids and their parents display a range of beliefs about race. “Racism is not a problem,” one girl tells Hagerman, adding that it “was a problem when all those slaves were around and that, like, bus thing and the water fountain.” Meanwhile, the girl’s mother nods along. Other parents in the book have educated themselves better, but often, intentionally or unintentionally, still end up giving their kids advantages that, in the abstract, they claim to oppose. (White Kids is not, as Hagerman writes at one point, “a particularly hopeful book.”)

I recently spoke to Hagerman, and that second group kept coming up in our conversation—how, despite their intentions, progressive-minded white families can perpetuate racial inequality. She also discussed ways they can avoid doing so.

Source: How to Teach White Kids About Race – The Atlantic

Harvard is but one of many US universities whose admissions policies ensure that the entering class is comprised of the ruling class.

What they are defending is a system in which wealth is passed off as merit, in which credentials are not earned but bought. Aptitude is a quality measured by how much money you can spend on its continual reassessment.

Students whose parents pay tens of thousands for SAT tutors to help their child take the test over and over compete against students who struggle to pay the fee to take the test once. Students who spend afternoons on “enrichment” activities compete against students working service jobs to pay bills – jobs which don’t “count” in the admissions process. Students who shell out for exotic volunteer trips abroad compete with students of what C Z Nnaemeka termed “the un-exotic underclass” – the poor who have “the misfortune of being insufficiently interesting”, the poor who make up most of the US today.

For upper class parents, the college admissions process has become a test of loyalty: What will you spend, what values will you compromise, for your child to be accepted? For lower class parents, admissions is a test failed at birth: An absence of wealth guised as a deficiency of merit. In the middle are the students, stranded players in a rigged game.

It does not have to be this way. Imagine a college application system in which applicants could only take standardized tests once. Imagine a system in which young people working jobs to support their families were valued as much as those who travel and “volunteer” on their parents’ dime. Imagine a system in which we valued what a person did with what he had, instead of mistaking a lack of resources for a lack of ability.

Imagine a system in which a child’s future did not rest on his parents’ past.

A higher education system that once promoted social mobility now serves to solidify class barriers. Desperate parents compromise their principles in order to spare their children rejection. But it is the system itself that must be rejected. True merit cannot be bought – and admission should not be either.

A false meritocracy breeds mediocrity.

Education is a luxury the minimum wage worker cannot afford. This message is passed on to their children.

Source: The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America

The grading and ranking of children perverts everything.

the last time marriage partners sorted themselves by educational status as much as they do now was in the 1920s.

Source: The Birth of the New American Aristocracy – The Atlantic

“That as long as we construct learning as a competition where we measure and rank individuals against one another, individuals with more power and money will find a way to game that system so they win. #MeritocracyEqualsAristocracy”

“As long as schools are grading and ranking children, they are shaming them.”