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.

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White Resentment: The Grand Bargain of White Supremacy

At the base of that fear was what Smith calls the “grand bargain” of white supremacy, buttressed by paternalism and evangelicalism, whereby the southern white masses relinquished political power to the few in exchange for maintaining their social status as better than the black man.

Ever the dealmakers, these southern white elites bent their culture to their political will, trading democracy for power. When that power was threatened by the civil rights revolutions, they struck another grand bargain—this time with the Grand Old Party—the terms of which have yet to expire.

Initially, the GOP acted on the advice of Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona who, in a speech following Richard Nixon’s loss to Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960, told fellow Republican leaders, “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” To do so, the GOP decided to capitalize on white racial angst, which was not in short supply in the South. However—and this is critical—that decision was but one in a series of decisions the party made not just on race, but on feminism and religion as well, in what is called here the “Long Southern Strategy.”

Once the GOP was seen as the protector of the southern sacraments of white privilege and patriarchy, many southern white voters flocked to it, turning the South solidly red in 1984 for the first time in history.

Fear and rage and resentment, the bread and butter of the Long Southern Strategy, often drive more people to the polls than optimism or likability or hope, no matter where they live.

Poor southern whites have long been conditioned to forfeit a personal battle in the service of winning an imagined war from which they do not benefit.

Source: Maxwell, Angie, Shields, Todd. The Long Southern Strategy. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.

–President Lyndon B. Johnson

Source: LBJ: ‘Convince the Lowest White Man He’s Better Than the Best Colored Man’

Race was not only created to justify a racially exploitative economic system, it was invented to lock people of color into the bottom of it. Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people-you will get more because they exist to get less. That promise is durable, and unless attacked directly, it will outlive any attempts to address class as a whole.

This promise-you will get more because they exist to get less-is woven throughout our entire society. Our politics, our education system, our infrastructure-anywhere there is a finite amount of power, influence, visibility, wealth, or opportunity. Anywhere in which someone might miss out. Anywhere there might not be enough. There the lure of that promise sustains racism.

White Supremacy is this nation’s oldest pyramid scheme. Even those who have lost everything to the scheme are still hanging in there, waiting for their turn to cash out.

Even the election of our first black president did not lessen the lure of this promise to draw people to their support of racism. If anything, the election strengthened it. His election was a clear, undeniable sign that some black people could get more, and then what about everyone else’s share? Those who had always blatantly or subconsciously depended on that promise, that they would get more because others would get less, were threatened in ways that they could not put words to. But suddenly, this didn’t feel like “their country” anymore. Suddenly, they didn’t feel like “their needs” were being met.

What keeps a poor child in Appalachia poor is not what keeps a poor child in Chicago poor-even if from a distance, the outcomes look the same. And what keeps an able-bodied black woman poor is not what keeps a disabled white man poor, even if the outcomes look the same.

Even in our class and labor movements, the promise that you will get more because others exist to get less, calls to people. It tells you to focus on the majority first. It tells you that the grievances of people of color, or disabled people, or transgender people, or women are divisive. The promise that keeps racism alive tells you that you will benefit most and others will eventually benefit… a little. It has you believing in trickle-down social justice.

Yes, it is about class-and about gender and sexuality and ability. And it’s also, almost always, about race.

Source: Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race (pp. 12-13). Da Capo Press. Kindle Edition.

Protecting whiteness was tantamount to protecting an investment. Jobs, promotions, loans—all were easier for southern whites to get, free of competition from an entire oppressed portion of the population who had been denied equal access to education, indeed to everything. So perilous was the idea of a level playing field—and increasingly so as the country entered the economic downturn of the 1970s that “Southern White Privilege” ( chapter 2 ) became the new lost cause for which many were willing to go down fighting. Any policy or government expenditure deemed as providing a leg up for African Americans was understood only as an attack on whites in this zero-sum game. Over the course of the Long Southern Strategy, the coded racial mantras shifted from whites being better suited at governing, to whites having the right to protect whites-only private spaces, to whites being victims of reverse discrimination. But equality feels like an attack when privilege is all one knows. Together, the coded language provided deniability and the urgent threat of potential peril consolidated resistance. Politically malleable, whiteness has proven to be the GOP’s blank check that always clears.

Source: Maxwell, Angie,Shields, Todd. The Long Southern Strategy. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

The guiding principle in Mr. Trump’s government is to turn the politics of white resentment into the policies of white rage — that calculated mechanism of executive orders, laws and agency directives that undermines and punishes minority achievement and aspiration.

Source: Opinion | The Policies of White Resentment

In a way, Donald Trump represents white people’s right to be wrong and still be right. He is the embodiment of the unassailability of white power and white privilege.

To abandon him is to give up on the pact that America has made with its white citizens from the beginning: The government will help to underwrite white safety and success, even at the expense of other people in this country, whether they be Native Americans, African-Americans or new immigrants.

But this idea of elevating the lowest white man over those more qualified or deserving didn’t begin with Johnson’s articulation and won’t end with Trump’s manifestation. This is woven into the fabric of the flag.

For white supremacy to be made perfect, the lowest white man must be exalted above those who are black.

No matter how much of an embarrassment and a failure Trump proves to be, his exploits must be judged a success. He must be deemed a correction to Barack Obama and a superior choice to Hillary Clinton. White supremacy demands it. Patriarchy demands it. Trump’s supporters demand it.

Source: ‘The Lowest White Man’ – The New York Times

The motivation in 2016 was equally nefarious and destructive. Trump tapped into an increasingly powerful conservative base that had been nurtured for decades on the Southern Strategy’s politics of anti-black resentment. Similar to George Wallace’s run for the presidency in 1968, Trump’s supporters bristled at the thought that public policies would provide any help to African Americans and were certain that blacks were getting much more than they deserved from the government while the “average American” was getting much less. The message was clear: They weren’t deserving and weren’t really even Americans.

Source: Anderson Ph.D., Carol. White Rage (p. 169). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Trump’s own racism allowed him to do what other candidates couldn’t: solidify the support of a majority of white Christians, not despite, but through appeals to white supremacy.

By activating the white supremacy sequence within white Christian DNA, which was primed for receptivity by the perceived external threat of racial and cultural change in the country, Trump was able to convert white evangelicals in the course of a single political campaign from so-called values voters to “nostalgia voters.” Trump’s powerful appeal to white evangelicals was not that he spoke to the culture wars around abortion or same-sex marriage, or his populist appeals to economic anxieties, but rather that he evoked powerful fears about the loss of white Christian dominance amid a rapidly changing environment.

Source: Jones, Robert P.. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (p. 15). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

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