New Policy with a Familiar Consequence: African Americans and the Higher Education Act

The month of February is a time for Americans to reflect on the history of struggle and progress of black people in the United States. Throughout the turbulent timeline of African descendants in this country, there is strong hope and endurance, even in the worst of circumstances. We acknowledge the need to pursue the still unrealized vision for racial justice, while gratefully recognizing hard-fought victories. We have come a long way but still have much to overcome, particularly in our overrepresentation in the criminal justice system and lack of access to adequate education. This is illustrated by the fact that in California and New York, more black and Latino men are admitted to prison each year than graduate from state universities.

Imagine a time where a young African American seeking access to higher education is halted at the gates of academia by an obscure federal provision for people who have violated laws that are most rigorously enforced in black communities. The policy limits access to federal funds helping lower income students pay for higher education based on violation of unevenly enforced laws. Not surprisingly, such laws have a disproportionate impact on African American students.

The unfortunate reality is, after all the meaningful efforts of the civil rights movement, such a policy exists today. It is the drug provision of the Higher Education Act (HEA), an amendment adopted by U.S. Congress in 1998. This provision delays or eliminates federal financial aid for any student convicted of a non-violent drug offense, possibly for the rest of that person's life.

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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