The recent killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police has sparked a movement that began at the birth of our nation. Though George Floyd may have been the most recent instance, we should not forget the lives of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Philando Castille, Tanisha Anderson, Atatiana Jefferson, Eric Garner, Charleena Lyles, Eula Love, Michael Brown, Khalif Browder, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, Latasha Harlins, Amadou Diallo, Mary Turner, Emmett Till, and too many other Black people who have been murdered.
As Black members of the computing community, we cannot ignore the impact of these deaths on our own lives. We also reflect on our own experiences with law enforcement and the injustices we experience in the places where we live, work, and learn. We have experienced the structural and institutional racism and bias that is integrated into society, professional networks, expert communities, and industries. We consistently hear the common refrain that we don’t exist. We do exist. We are here and demand to be heard and seen in-person and online. We are here and demand to be represented in the classrooms, research labs, the development teams, executive suites, boards of directors, and policy-making bodies that are shaping our future. We are here and demand equal partnership with the institutions of computing to achieve systemic fairness in our field.
We bear witness to countless examples of Black students harassed by campus police, fellow students, and faculty while accessing research or computer labs because they didn’t think we “belonged” there. We have been asked if we were lost and offered directions while walking the halls of our own departments or academic buildings. We feel the burden of being the only Black faculty member consistently tasked with doing the work of “diversity,” taking away from the precious time we have to dedicate to our scholarly pursuits. We see and feel our students’ heartaches when they experience racism while earning their degrees. We share the pain of being told that we don’t “fit” into industry culture and receiving rejections from the most desired internships. We can recount specific challenges faced when competing for research dollars to build and sustain our labs. We know the compounding effect brought by feelings of isolation on one’s spirit as the “only” in a meeting, within a boardroom, on a committee, in a research lab, or in a classroom. We hear from our managers and evaluators— “you have not done enough, or as much as…” when comparing us to our non-Black colleagues—and feel despair and disappointment of being treated and rated far less favorably. We hear our colleagues’ microaggressions, insensitive comments, and assumptions. They have not educated themselves around racism and social justice. This list could go on for pages but we’re too tired from living it to continue describing it to those in our communities who have been either oblivious, complicit, or indifferent to us and our education and careers.
We know first-hand that computing as an institution is still a long way from realizing its promise to make the world a better place. As scientists, technologists, and engineers, we are told that there is no need for “culture” in our field. Ones and zeros, the scientific method, and meritocracy form the basis of our discipline, where computing is a neutral entity. We know this is not true. We know that our field does not exist in a vacuum. The structural and institutional racism that has brought the nation to this point, is also rooted in our discipline. We see AI and big data being used to target the historically disadvantaged. The technologies we help create to benefit society are also disrupting Black communities through the proliferation of racial profiling. We see machine learning systems that routinely identify Black people as animals and criminals. Algorithms we develop are used by others to further intergenerational inequality by systematizing segregation into housing, lending, admissions, and hiring practices.
“We know the compounding effect brought by feelings of isolation on one’s spirit as the ‘only’ in a meeting, within a boardroom, on a committee, in a research lab, or in a classroom.”An Open Letter to Computing Community