In the short-lived TV sitcom Better off Ted, the writers parody the phenomena of biased technology in an episode titled “Racial Sensitivity.” This episode presents the corporation where the show takes place installing a “new state of the art system that’s gonna save money,” but employees soon find there is a “glitch in the system that keeps it from recognizing people with dark skin.”3 When the show’s protagonist confronts his boss, suggesting the sensors are racist, she insists otherwise:
The company’s position is that it’s actually the opposite of racist because it’s not targeting black people, it’s just ignoring them. They insist that the worst people can call it is indifferent … In the meantime, they’d like to remind everyone to celebrate the fact that it does see Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Jews.4
The show brilliantly depicts how the default Whiteness of tech development, a superficial corporate diversity ethos, and the prioritization of efficiency over equity work together to ensure that
innovation produces social containment.5 The fact that Black employees are unable to use the elevators, doors, and water fountains or turn the lights on is treated as a minor inconvenience in service to a greater good. The absurdity goes further when, rather than removing the sensors, the company “blithely installs separate, manually operated drinking fountains for the convenience of the black employees,”6 an incisive illustration of the New Jim Code wherein tech advancement, posed as a solution, conjures a prior racial regime in the form of separate water fountains.
Eventually the company sees the error of its ways and decides to hire minimum-wage-earning White employees to follow Black employees around the building, so that the sensors will activate. But then the legal team determines that, for each new White worker, they must hire an equal number of Black workers, and on and on, in a spiraling quota that ends when the firm finally decides to reinstall the old sensors.
Playing off of the political anxieties around reverse discrimination and affirmative action, the episode title “Racial Sensitivity” – a formula that usually designates a charge brought against Black people who call attention to racism – is a commentary on the company’s insensitivity and on the absurdity of its fixes. The writers seem to be telling us that more, not less, sensitivity is the solution to the technological and institutional dilemma of coded inequity. The episode also manages to illustrate how indifference to Blackness can be profitable within the logic of racial capitalism until the social costs become too high to maintain.
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