How ‘The New Jim Code’ Is Entrenched In Daily Life - But That Can Change

person in front of a computer presenting
Zain Murdock
November 17, 2023

Social biases rooted in colonialism, like anti-Blackness, don’t just stay in our minds. They’re coded into objects, tools, laws, and technology. It’s called discriminatory design. 

It’s a major element of what sociologist Ruha Benjamin coined the “New Jim Code.” Our apps and algorithms aren’t neutral. Humans are behind them, and their beliefs are, too.

Discriminatory design often isn’t as obvious as bathroom “Whites Only” signs. But there are still physical examples, like uncomfortable public benches with armrests, spikes, or odd shapes. That isn’t by chance. 

It’s to prevent unhoused people from sleeping there, and makes life harder for disabled people and anyone who needs a moment to rest.

The same goes for facial recognition tools in policing, which consistently misidentify and misuse the likenesses of dark-skinned Black people. In medicine, it’s tools like pulse oximeters misdiagnosing our skin, or health textbooks leaving out how to diagnose our disease symptoms.

But Benjamin says we can combat this through non-discriminatory, or liberatory design. We can celebrate Black photographers who capture us on camera, or medical student Malone Mukwende, who created a handbook of clinical signs for Black patients.

Discriminatory design is still a part of our daily life. But we can fight it by understanding and supporting the innovations and logic of liberatory design. Let’s confront coloniality - and improve our lives by centering our humanity.

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