40 Acres and a Mule

The enslavement and forced labor of Black bodies has powerful resonances in every aspect of global society. In some of ways, the technological moment described in Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism is similar to an inescapable system of bondage. I certainly do not make this statement flippantly as the choice to utilize Google and other forms of technology are in no way comparable to the horror and oppression of centuries of slavery. However, in light of just having read Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market by William Johnson, connections can be drawn between the topic of his work and Noble’s. Specifically, Johnson analyzes the commercial aspect of slavery via the case study of the New Orleans slave market, the largest in the early nineteenth century. Johnson argues that the slave market (theoretically the final stop of the domestic slave trade from a commercial sense) was the defining feature of the antebellum South. He uses the concept of the chattel principle to discuss how the commodification of people was realized in daily life for the benefit and detriment of all people involved—the slave trader, the slaveholder and the enslaved person. The slave market and its subsequent transactions shaped the identities of everyone taking part. The whiteness of the traders and buyers/enslavers experienced a tension that ultimately reinforced its power. The Blackness of the enslaved people was coded and performed in ways that distanced them from or affirmed their agency as people rather than merely saleable objects. Essentially, the institution of slavery pervaded every part of Southern society and culture in ways that were inescapable, insidious and deleterious to social construction/destruction—similar to Noble’s analysis of Google today. Except in this analogy, Google operates as the unscrupulous slave trader, slaveholders are the (assumed) majority white consumer base, and the enslaved people are the marginalized groups (largely Black people—no surprise there) whose value is being arbitrarily assigned based off of racist presumptions.

The racialized commercialization that the author suggests occurs with each Google search for Black people, particularly Black women, is eerily reminiscent of Johnson’s explanation of the commodification practices used by slave traders to speculate the profitability of the sale of a human. Johnson’s assertion that buyers in these slave markets utilized arbitrary physical markers to judge “fitness” and acclimation in lieu of a legitimate way to verify the profitability of a potential purchase is echoed by Noble’s discussion of the invention of racial categories. While discussing the constructs of race and gender she writes, “Inventions of racial categories are mutable and historically specific…These conceptions and stereotypes don’t live in the past; they are part of our present, and they are global in scope” (Noble 95.) Unfortunately, as Noble makes plain, most people are either unable or unwilling to identify, acknowledge the impact of, and interrogate the Internet’s underpinnings in racist ideology.

Obviously a one to one comparison cannot intelligibly be made between the tactics of the American slave trade and the highly racialized algorithmic output of Google. But the parallels are enough to cause concern. Similar to Black bodies being bought and sold without regard for their human rights solely for the profit of the white power structure, our personal data is collected and traded digitally in a way that disenfranchises us while benefiting corporate structures. In an attempt to thwart what Noble defines as “digital redlining” (167) a phenomenon being perpetuated daily by a deepening of structural inequalities, whistle-blowers are advocating for more transparency around data collection and safeguards to ensure its privacy. The Data Union is a New York based non-profit that, according to their Instagram page, advocates “for a market economy that acknowledges and indemnifies people for the labor contributed by their natural resource: #PersonalData.” While I admire the push for people to be paid for the contributions their data makes I don’t see it gaining much traction. I mean, Black people are still waiting for their 40 acres and a mule, right?

About Sydney Johnson

Sydney. Storyteller. Thinker. Creator. Black Feminist Historian. Welcome to my blog! I am a first year American Studies Doctoral student at Rutgers-Newark. I hope you enjoy my blog as much as I’m enjoying my journey.
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3 Responses to 40 Acres and a Mule

  1. erivka says:

    You draw a compelling comparison btw. the political economy of chattel slavery and internet search. However, I wonder if reforms, or even reparations, regarding the latter are more imaginable in the US context simply because a critical mass of White people may feel negatively affected by internet search in a way that they surely didn’t/don’t regarding slavery. No surprise that the 40 acres and a mule never happened because this transaction appears to be contrary to White self-interest. I am reminded of Derrick Bell’s (1980) depressingly pragmatic notion of “interest convergence,” basically arguing that “civil rights” reforms only move “forward” when it is in White self-interest for them to do so (e.g. championing American democracy during the Cold War). An “interest convergence” approach to regulating internet search may serve as an example of the queer Black feminist assertion that liberation for the most marginalized is the only path to liberation for all.

    Bell Jr., Derrick A. “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma.” Harvard Law Review, 1980, 518–533.


  2. larrydurst says:

    Your reference to commodification and your link to the Data Union is a fascinating connection. Google commodifies all of its users. We are not really individual subjects to Google but data points. We are not “people” but “consumers” who are traded according to certain values established by the market. Google is not catering to us, they are trading us. We are the commodity. The trick is to have us believing that they are serving out interests.

    SPOILER ALERT Do not read on if you have any thought of watching the episode of The Twilight Zone linked below; this train of thought led me to thinking of this story from the show, and how, while we think we are consuming the information on Google, Google might well be consuming us.


  3. larrydurst says:

    Ah, and just realized my mistake in italics–I keep forgetting the / to end it.


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