Dragging individuals as objects of the public condemnation of racist speech has become a media ritual and pastime. Some may consider it a distraction from the more insidious, institutionalized forms of racism typified by Sterling’s real estate practices. The déjà vu regularity of all those low-hanging N-words would suggest that stigmatizing individuals is not much of a deterrent and rarely addresses all that gives them license and durability.
But, as with Trinity’s response to Neo in the Matrix regarding his path being crossed twice by a black cat, perhaps if we situated racist “glitches” in the larger complex of social meanings and structures, we too could approach them as a signal rather than as a distraction. Sterling’s infamous phone call, in this case, would alert us to a deeper pattern of housing discrimination, with far-reaching consequences.
Systemic Racism Reloaded Scholars of race have long challenged the focus on individual “bad apples,” often to be witnessed when someone’s racist speech is exposed in the media – which is typically followed by business as usual.24 These individuals are treated as glitches in an otherwise benign system. By contrast, sociologists have worked to delineate how seemingly neutral policies and norms can poison the entire “orchard” or structure of society, systematically benefiting some while subjugating others.25
Whereas racist glitches are often understood as transient, as signals they can draw our attention to discriminatory design as a durable feature of the social landscape since this nation’s founding. As sociologists Joe Feagin and Sean Elias write, “[i]n the case of US society, systemic racism is foundational to and engineered into its major institutions and organizations.”26 This reorientation is also exemplified by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists, in which he defines “racialized social systems, or white supremacy for short … as the totality of the social relations and practices that reinforce white privilege. Accordingly, the task of analysts interested in studying racial structures is to uncover the particular social, economic, political, social control, and ideological mechanisms responsible for the reproduction of racial privilege in a society.”27
Taken together, this work builds upon the foundational insights of Charles V. Hamilton and Kwame Ture (née Stokely Carmichael), who developed the term “institutional racism” in 1967. While the authors discuss the linkage between institutional racism and what they describe as individual racism, they also state:
This is not to say that every single white American consciously oppresses black people. He does not need to. Institutional racism has been maintained deliberately by the power structure and through indifference, inertia, and lack of courage on the part of the white masses as well as petty officials … The line between purposeful suppression and indifference blurs.28
But taking issue with the overwhelming focus on top-down forces that characterize work on systemic racism, including Feagin and Elias’ “theory of oppression,” Michael Omi and Howard Winant highlight the agency and resistance of those subordinated by such systems. They say:
To theorize racial politics and the racial state, then, is to enter the complex territory where structural racism encounters self- reflective action, the radical practice of people of color (and their white allies) in the United States. It is to confront the instability of the US system of racial hegemony, in which despotism and democracy coexist in seemingly permanent conflict.29
Strikingly, throughout this early work on institutional racism and structural inequality, there was very little focus on the role of technologies, beyond mass media, in advancing or undermining racial ideologies and structures. As Jessie Daniels notes in “Race and Racism in Internet Studies”:
The role of race in the development of Internet infrastructure and design has largely been obscured. As Sinclair observes, “The history of race in America has been written as if technologies scarcely existed, and the history of technology as if it were utterly innocent of racial significance.”