Algorithms Don’t Think About Race. So Tech Giants Need To.

Recently, during a presentation to an audience of library professionals — all of whom (including myself) happened to be white — regarding subject access concerning gender and sexuality, I demonstrated variations describing major North American racial categories across three databases.

One of the participants spoke up. “I find those offensive,” she said. “Why do we need to think about race? I don’t think it’s relevant!” I was a bit taken aback by her response, as both the previous speaker and myself had addressed the theme of intersectionality — how we’re not just men, women, trans, white, black, Indigenous, able-bodied, straight, gay etc. but that we’re all combinations of all of these factors. Several other audience members joined me in pointing out that many people are directly and negatively affected because of how society responds to their race, so yes, it is an important factor that we need to discuss. Indeed, argued one participant, the very absence of diverse faces in the room was likely a symptom of structural racism.

“I just don’t get that!” She countered. “I don’t think about race, I just don’t. It’s not important!” The conversation continued for a few minutes and I managed to steer the presentation back to the slides I’d prepared, but the woman — still clearly agitated – -got up and left shortly afterwards.

Her response isn’t unusual: any open discussion of race is often met with hostile reaction from whites who counter that merely raising the issue is itself racist. I realized afterwards that what I should have more clearly articulated is that the intention of such a discussion is not to accuse anyone of being a racist, but rather to acknowledge that because we are all socialized within a structurally racialized system, we are all affected by race whether we say we think about it or not. Having just discussed it earlier, I should also have in particular referred back to Sanford Berman’s work on Library of Congress Subject Headings to show how structural racism in the real world can get reproduced in the language of library catalogues, databases and search engines.

This latter phenomenon has gained increasing attention over the past year as journalists and activists have documented apparent bias in mainstream search engines. In the middle of 2016, a viral YouTube video demonstrated how a search for “three black teenagers” resulted primarily in pictures of criminal suspects, while the same search for white teenagers showed happy, well-dressed young people. In a related story from later that year, a British journalist named Carol Cadwalladr typed in the start of racially-oriented questions into Google and got appalling results from the site’s auto-complete feature:

[Google] offered me a choice of potential questions it thought I might want to ask: “are jews a race?”, “are jews white?”, “are jews christians?”, and finally, “are jews evil?” Are Jews evil? It’s not a question I’ve ever thought of asking. I hadn’t gone looking for it. But there it was. I press enter. A page of results appears. This was Google’s question. And this was Google’s answer: Jews are evil. Because there, on my screen, was the proof: an entire page of results, nine out of 10 of which “confirm” this.

I decided to try some related searches myself, and was equally disgusted with the results:


bing_blm2At the same time, I was working on updating my University Library’s research guide on Race, Racialization and Racism, and decided to link to some recent video content regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. Heading over to YouTube, I typed in “Black Lives Matter” and was soon shocked at what I saw: page after page after virulent page of videos — most of which featuring white speakers — that were blatantly anti-BLM, calling it “hateful” the “new KKK,” “racist” and a “terrorist organization.” (I am deliberately not providing links to these videos).

The prominence of such content in Google’s and YouTube’s search results is based on algorithms predicated on popularity and the needs of advertisers, not relevance, accuracy or reasonableness. While such results may be considered by users to be authoritative and “the truth,” as media and cinema studies scholar Safiya Umoja Noble writes,

[i]t is dominant narratives about the objectivity and popularity of web search results that make misogynist or racist search results appear to be natural. Not only do they seem “normal” due to the technological blind spots of users who are unable to see the commercial interests operating in the background of search (deliberately obfuscated from their view), they also seem completely unavoidable because of the perceived “popularity” of sites as the factor that lifts websites to the top of the results’ pile. Furthermore, general belief in myths of digital democracy emblematized in Google and its search results means that users of Google give consent to the algorithms’ legitimacy through their continued use of the product, despite its ineffective inclusion of websites that are decontextualized from social meaning, and Google’s wholesale abandonment of responsibility for its search results.

The potentially lethal consequences of this kind of abandonment were made starkly clear following the trial of Dylann Roof, who was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering nine people in the hope of launching a race war, when it was revealed that his goal was set in motion by his immersion in racist Internet articles:

Roof’s radicalization began, as he later wrote in an online manifesto, when he typed the words “black on White crime” into Google and found what he described as “pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders.” The first web pages he found were produced by the Council of Conservative Citizens, a crudely racist group that once called black people a “retrograde species of humanity.” Roof wrote that he has “never been the same since that day.” As he delved deeper, because of the way Google’s search algorithm worked, he was immersed in hate materials. Google says its algorithm takes into account how trustworthy, reputable or authoritative a source is. In Roof’s case, it clearly did not.

Facebook, too, has run into trouble for its reliance on algorithms, with the result that users are faced with ubiquitous “fake news” originating on the far right, compounded by its decision to eschew a tag for Black Lives Matter:

While Facebook has attempted to profess that algorithms are somehow neutral, many people have pointed out that an algorithm also represents an editorial decision—the instructions that coders pour into it are just as subject to human values and bias as other choices.

In much the same way that accusing individuals of racism misses the larger point, we need to recognize that tech giants such as Google and Facebook aren’t deliberately, consciously racisthowever, by basing their operations on supposedly “neutral” algorithms that don’t account for structural racism in the broader society, they can’t help but occasionally produce racialized results — with sometimes deadly consequences.

To address this, more curation is required on the part of tech companies. Search engines should not be auto-suggesting racist search queries, negatively portraying racial groups with image results, front-loading blatantly racist videos in response to a general query or immersing users in racist content without balancing results from anti-racist websites. Just as claiming one doesn’t think about race is in fact a decision to think a certain way about race, so too are claims of algorithm neutrality.

A Library Matter of Genocide, pt. II

Some months ago, I decided to submit an abstract to the Ontario Library Association conference, based on a post of mine from this past May, A Library Matter of Genocide, which dealt with the bizarrely euphemistic, inadequate and utterly biased treatment of the genocide against Native Americans on the part of Library of Congress Subject Headings. The abstract was accepted, and I’m scheduled to present this paper on Friday, January 29th as a part of the OLA’s Aboriginal issues stream.

Recently, I was also asked by a faculty member in the University of Winnipeg’s History department to speak to his philosophy of history class on the theme of libraries and historiography, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to develop the earlier essay into what will become my conference paper. The timing was also fortunate because several news items in September pointed to the invisibility of the Native American holocaust, and the imperative for libraries to foreground this history in their bibliographic tools.

In early September 2015, a Cal State Sacramento University student named Chiitaanibah Johnson (Navajo/Maidu) was expelled from class for confronting her history professor for his refusal to concede that Native Americans had been subjected to a genocide, a confrontation that made the professor so angry he accused her of “hijacking” his class, at which point he dismissed the class and told her he had “disenrolled” her. Then, on September 23rd, Pope Francis – celebrated around the world by liberals and progressives for his stances on climate change – canonized Father Junípero Serra, calling him a “protector of Native Americans” for establishing California’s mission system; despite Native American activists and other critics pointing out that the mission system was notorious for being slave labour camps, the death rates at which exceeded birth rates. Within days of Serra’s canonization, his statue at the Carmel mission where he is buried was vandalized, and “Saint of Genocide” written on the stones. As the New York Times reported,

Historians agree that [Serra] forced Native Americans to abandon their tribal culture and convert to Christianity, and that he had them whipped and imprisoned and sometimes worked or tortured to death…Thousands of Native Americans died after being exposed to European diseases. Those who survived were forced to give up tribal customs and submit to the demands of their Christian overlords — from observing rites like baptism to enduring physical abuse and working conditions that resembled slavery… Villagers were rounded up, shackled or flogged if they failed to follow the missionaries’ Catholic code. 

I framed my presentation with these stories, and how both events have reignited a debate over the long-standing lack of recognition on the part of Americans in general – and the intelligentsia in particular — of the reality of the genocide of Native Americans.

For decades, Indigenous peoples’ experiences of mass killings and atrocities have been excluded from the “borderlines” of genocide studies, owing to both a focus on definitions, typologies and perpetrator motivations, and a dismissal of Indigenous worldviews; Noam Chomsky also observes that a widely-shared imperial culture among America’s intelligentsia has resulted in a consensus view on genocides rooted in American exceptionalism such that both historic and contemporary atrocities wrought by America or her allies are by definition not genocides, or are downplayed or imbued with virtue owing to their role in furthering the American project of freedom and democracy. He notes of the historical record of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s illegal and vastly indiscriminate war against Cambodia,

We cannot be people who openly and publicly call for genocide and then carry it out. That can’t be. So therefore, it didn’t happen. And therefore, it doesn’t even have to be wiped out of history, because it will never enter history.

The title for my paper is taken from Ward Churchill’s 1997 book A Little Matter of Genocide, in which he argues that many orthodox American historians across the ideological spectrum resist applying the term “genocide” to the catastrophic loss of life Native Americans suffered over the past 500 years, either by denying, minimizing or even justifying the nature and scale of the killings that took place. As well – and to further compound the ideological nature of this controversy – the debate over the use of the term genocide has also been bound up in a broader discourse over the legitimacy of comparative genocide studies, and whether or not the uniqueness of the Holocaust prevents historians from seeking any commonalities with other historical atrocities, particularly America’s extermination of its Indigenous peoples. Churchill in particular criticizes Deborah Lipstadt, historian and author of Denying the Holocaust for her conflating historians seeking to compare genocides with outright deniers, such as David Duke. Historian and philosopher Steven Katz, too, is lambasted by Churchill for his assertion that what occurred was not a genocide but a “demographic collapse” caused overwhelmingly by disease, and that deaths owing to the violence of the so-called “Indian Wars” only amounted to some tens of thousands – that is, that the extermination of the Indians transpired “unwittingly rather than by design”.

Churchill classes the orthodox interpretations as ranging from such exclusivist and minimalizing explanations as Katz’, to efforts at “contextualizing” the mass killings as typical of civilizational clashes and conventions of warfare in a more violent past, to actually justifying and rationalizing them in light of the benificent nature of contemporary American civilization. Some of the so-called “exclusivists” carry their argument so far, he observes, that they accuse “comparativists” of antisemitism.

The discourse Churchill identifies has more or less successfully minimized, euphemized, isolated and rendered ideologically toxic the historical reality of the Native American Genocide. I then argued that access to this literature, via the Library of Congress Subject Headings, has contributed in no small way to these processes.

The response from the students was vigorous, interesting and provocative; several of them had also run into problems themselves in researching aspect of the Native American genocides or Indigenous history in general and found the subject terms inadequate at best. Some examples:

  • A student working on an oral history project concerning the residential school experience ran into difficulties when the stories they were hearing, the concepts and experiences of the residential school survivors, couldn’t be described using the LCSH;
  • a student writing a paper on how museums respond to/treat the subject of genocide found it difficult to find anything;
  • one student’s mother had tried 10 years ago to do a dissertation about the residential schools as a form of genocide, but couldn’t find resources that made this connection; this is now changing since Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Murray Sinclair have openly applied the term to Canada in the wake of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission;
  • histories of Custer’s Last Stand from an Indigenous point of view record how his “last stand” was actually only the final such defeat that the 7th Cavalry had suffered – there had been others but are not often mentioned in conventional history. The student argued that this shows how Native voices in the historical record matter.

The class concluded with a broader discussion led by the professor on what difference it makes whether we call something genocide or a massacre. I argued that it changes the conversation: if Chiitaanibah Johnson had been able to open her laptop and go to the Cal Tech library catalogue she could have shown her professor all the dozens of books with the subject heading “Genocide United States History”, thereby undercutting his genocide denial. Sadly, no books can be found using this heading.

Further, enabling the use of the word “genocide” in the case of Native Americans would help to legitimize the ability to compare genocides, the study of which can help us prevent them from happening again. As Chomsky and Churchill argue, if genocide is only seen as the Holocaust against the Jews of Europe, while dismissing many other historical atrocities and campaigns of extermination, this is a form of holocaust denial. It fails to recognize that genocide can happen anywhere, at any time, and that any one of us could potentially become participants in it, given sufficient enculturation. Disabling our ability to name and discuss genocide disables our ability to recognize and prevent it.

A Library Matter of Genocide

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg (CMHR) — the first national museum located outside of Canada’s capital city, Ottawa — has been fraught with controversy since its inception, largely over accusations regarding its unequal and imbalanced treatment of genocides. Its official view as a crown corporation is that it only names those genocides recognized by the government of Canada: the Holocaust, Rwanda, Srebrenica, the Armenian genocide of 1915 (over Turkish objections) and the Holodomor in Ukraine. On the matter of the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada, however, the Museum is more circumspect, only acknowledging in a display on residential schools that  “many people argue” they were a “form” of genocide. As a result, Indigenous groups spoke out against the Museum during its development, and protested it when it opened.

Yesterday’s Winnipeg Free Press reveals that this stance on the part of the Museum may have in fact been vigorously enforced, its curators actively directed to remove references to Canada’s genocide. The article quotes Tricia Logan, a former curator with the CMHR, who writes in a chapter she contributed to the 2014 book Remembering Genocide from Routledge, (edited by Nigel Eltringham and Pam Maclean), that

“As a curator at the CMHR, I was consistently reminded that every mention of state-perpetrated atrocity against indigenous peoples in Canada must be matched with a ‘balanced’ statement that indicates reconciliation, apology or compensation provided by the government. In cases where those issues are not reconciled or where accusations of abuse against the government continue to this day, the stories are reduced in scope or are removed from the museum…I was also instructed to remove the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘settler colonial genocide’ from all indigenous exhibits.

As a result, she concluded, the museum was, in her words, “accepting a model of complacency and promotion of the status quo.”

As it turns out, yesterday I also presented a library instruction session to an Aboriginal History course at the University of Winnipeg in which we also came across some classic examples of “complacency” and “status quo” concerning the genocide of Native Americans, but these are on the part of the Library of Congress. In the process of demonstrating our library catalogue, I discovered and displayed the book American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World by David E. Stannard, which, according to the publisher Oxford University Press, is about “the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world:”

For four hundred years–from the first Spanish assaults against the Arawak people of Hispaniola in the 1490s to the U.S. Army’s massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee in the 1890s–the indigenous inhabitants of North and South America endured an unending firestorm of violence. During that time the native population of the Western Hemisphere declined by as many as 100 million people…Stannard reveals that wherever Europeans or white Americans went, the native people were caught between imported plagues and barbarous atrocities, typically resulting in the annihilation of 95 percent of their populations… Advancing a thesis that is sure to create much controversy, Stannard contends that the perpetrators of the American Holocaust drew on the same ideological wellspring as did the later architects of the Nazi Holocaust.

Surely there is no “circumspection” on the part of the author, no effort to downplay the extent of this brutal history by conceding only that “many people argue” that a genocide occurred. And yet – how did the Library of Congress decide to describe these damning contents?

Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Columbus, Christopher — Influence.
  • Indians, Treatment of.
  • Indians — First contact with Europeans.
  • America — Discovery and exploration — Spanish.


Standing before a class of Indigenous students – mostly women – I regarded the screen with something akin to horror. I couldn’t let this teachable moment pass. The contrast between this book’s contents and its official description were too stark — indeed, too obscene to ignore. I pointed out the disparities: committing mass atrocities is a way to be “influential”? Torturing, killing, starving and poisoning constitutes a form of “treatment”? Even at the most basic level these subject headings were inaccurate: surely this book went beyond “first contact” to describe the wars and slaughter against Native Americans? And the use of “discovery and exploration” as a way to convey the murder of 100 million people is beyond comment.

These Subject Headings are clearly so incommensurate with the book’s contents, so dishonest a way to offer user access to it, that they go beyond inadequate and into the territory of what could well be characterized as holocaust denial. Indeed, they accord well with the tendencies Ward Churchill identifies in his 1997 book, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present, in which he wrote,

The American holocaust was and remains unparalleled both in terms of its magnitude and degree to which its goals were met, and in terms of the extent to which its ferocity was sustained over time by not one but several participating groups.The ideological matrix of its denial is also among the most well developed of any genocide — or more accurately, series of genocides – for which a significant amount of information is readily available…In other words, denial is manifested in more-or-less equal parts at all points on the ideological compass of the dominant society…the historical reality is simultaneously denied, justified and in most cases celebrated (pp. 4 and 7).  

As an arm of the United States government, the Library of Congress contributes to this “ideological matrix,” by minimizing and sanitizing historical reality through subject headings such as these. Interestingly (and ironically) Churchill’s book is assigned the following Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Indians, Treatment of — North America — History.
  • Indian of North America — Government relations.
  • Genocide — North America — History.
  • United States — Race relations.
  • North America — Politics and government.
  • Indians of North America — Government relations

While the third heading is nominally more honest – Genocide in North America is acknowledged at least, if only passively (who did it? Against whom?) the remaining headings are excruciatingly inappropriate. Genocide is not a form of “government relations” or “race relations.” These terms suggest some sort of power parity, that the book deals with forms of governance, not deliberate campaigns of extermination. To further compound matters, there is no subject access to another of the book’s major arguments, criticizing those who seek to promote the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust and downplay and negate other genocides.

The assignment of such headings is not just dishonest, but by obscuring, omitting, disguising and misrepresenting the contents of these books it erects significant barriers to discovery on the part of the interested researcher, and therefore fails even on a practical level. On a broader level, such headings are part of the status quo-enforcing power — well-recognized in the literature — of the library’s “power to name” (in the words of Hope Olson). As Daniel Martínez-Ávila and José Guimarães wrote in a 2013 article in the journal Scire,

Library schemes both reflect and create opinion at the same time…It is well known that a very effective way to eradicate a certain group or a people from History is by in no way naming it. An effective way to defame a thing and put an end to its aspirations is to change its meaning to the worst possible one or place it in the wrong context…[A]ll these biases were introduced with the unconscious or intentional purpose of reinforcing the power discourses and the status quo.

It accords with the interests of power on both sides of the 49th parallel to avoid facing the reality of the genocide of Native Americans; unfortunately for those interested in researching this history it is necessary to navigate the codified, formalized language of this avoidance.

Additional sources:

Martínez-Ávila, Daniel and Guimarães, José Augusto Chaves. 2013. Library Classifications Criticisms: Universality, Poststructuralism and Ethics. Scire 19 (2): 21-6.