It's Not Just Starbucks: Behind the Surprisingly Oppressive History of Coffeehouses

An 18th-century ad tells us that a dozen or so men, women, and children of African heritage were scheduled for buyer’s inspection one Saturday, just outside the entrance of the London Coffee House in Philadelphia. The Stamp Act protests and other famous anti-British demonstrations took place not far from the auction block where this enslaved group would have stood chained, their naked bodies ready for prodding and probing. The establishment owner, William Bradford, published—in his newspaper The Pennsylvania Journal, books and other materials—the works of revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine, in addition to the Declaration of Rights from the First Continental Congress. The Founding Fathers and other influential, wealthy men came to this venue to talk politics, make deals, and often to buy and sell human beings.

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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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