The racial inequalities afflicting Americans and our society today are in many ways a result of the result of spatial segregation. White people and nonwhite people tend to live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools and have dramatically different economic opportunities based on their race. That physical manifestation of structural racism has been true historically in this country, and is still the case today. Today’s internet is built on a similar spatial logic. People travel from website to website in search of content in the same way they travel from neighborhood to neighborhood looking for stuff to do and people to hang out with. Websites accrue and compound value as visitor traffic and site visibility increases. But there is a crucial difference: Internet users have – more or less – complete freedom to travel where they choose. Websites can’t see the color of a user’s skin and police incoming traffic in the same way human beings can and do in geographical spaces. Therefore, it’s easy to imagine that the internet’s very structure – the social environments it produces and the new economies it births – might not be racially segregated the way the physical world is. And yet the internet does appear in fact segregated along racial lines. My research demonstrates that websites focusing on racial issues are visited less often, and are less visible in search result rankings than sites with different, or broader, focuses. This phenomenon is not based on anything that individual website producers do. Rather, it appears to be a product of how users themselves find and share information online, a process mediated mostly by search engines and, increasingly, social media platforms. Exploring online racism Words like “racist” and “racism” are loaded terms, primarily because people almost always associate them with individualized moral and cognitive failures. In recent years, though, the American public has become increasingly aware that racism can apply to cultures and societies at large. My work looks for online analogues of this systemic racism, in which subtle biases permeate society and culture in ways that yield overwhelming advantages for whites, at the expense of nonwhites. Specifically, I am trying to determine whether the online environment, one completely constructed by humans, systematically produces advantages and disadvantages along racial lines – whether intentionally or inadvertently. This is a difficult question to approach, but I begin by assuming that today’s technological systems have developed within a culture and society that is systemically and structurally racist. This makes it possible – even likely – that existing biases operate in similar ways online.
In addition, the historical geographical configurations that produced and perpetuated racial inequality provide a useful guide to investigating what systemic racism might look like online. The online landscape, and how people travel through it, are both important factors to understand this picture.
via theconversation: Is there structural racism on the internet?