“Why not replace the slaves with AI-powered robots,” one proponent of AI suggests, “creating a digital utopia that everyone can enjoy?” To this, scientist Yarden Katz answers: “There is no clearer testament to the whiteness of the AI-expert industry than the gleeful appeal to slavery as the force that can save American society in the 21st century.” Racist imagery in AI hype persists to such an extent that one begins to suspect it is not a bug but a feature.1 Consider another paean to AI, by Max Tegmark, a physicist, cosmologist, and machine-learning researcher. He says AI could potentially make us “masters of our own destiny not only in our solar system … but also in the cosmos.” In 1910, sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois famously wondered in an essay why anyone would want to claim whiteness; he concludes that “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” Considering the racialized notions of AI today, Katz writes: “Du Bois thought whiteness was about ‘the ownership of the earth,’ but AI’s luminaries want the whole cosmos.”
On my computer, I keep a spreadsheet with three columns. In the first column, I track incidents of violence motivated by white-supremacist ideology. In the second column, I note the developments in digital-media technologies, like the rise of Facebook (widely available in 2006 and IPO’d in 2012). And in the third column, I keep a selection of the popular commentary in mainstream press outlets about white supremacy, technology, or, much less frequently, both. This purposive database continues to instruct me about the spread of the far right under platform capitalism.
I began this bespoke database because I wanted to better understand the relationships among the rise in globally networked violence, the reemergence and rebranding of AI technology, and the messy, unhelpful commentary from those who, though perhaps well intentioned, are unable to grasp the very clear threat that white supremacy poses for us all. A deeper appreciation of the profound ways that these forces are intertwined can be achieved by reading three new books: Talia Lavin’s Culture Warlords, Yarden Katz’s Artificial Whiteness, and Tyler Stovall’s White Freedom.
Putting these three books together offers a crucial insight, the same as I achieved in my spreadsheet: not only is right-wing, white-supremacist violence rising; elements of white supremacy are baked into current technology and even future AI. The two phenomena are perhaps the same. And if they are not the same, then they might as well be, because the world of at least the last decade has been, and surely that of the next decade will be, overwhelmingly defined by white-supremacist violence spread across the globe through the whiteness of AI technology. Can seeing them together offer a greater chance of defeating both?
First column: the violence. Throughout the second decade of the early 21st century, there was a global rise in violence from the far right.
In July 2011, a white supremacist set off a bomb and launched a shooting attack at a youth camp in Oslo, Norway, that killed 77 people, many of them children. In August 2012, a white man with ties to the Hammerskins, a neo-Nazi group, shot and killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; three others were injured. In 2014, a former member of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan shot and killed three people at two Jewish community centers in Kansas. In 2015, a 21-year-old white supremacist walked into a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine people dead. In 2016, British Labor MP Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist who was enraged by Cox’s support of immigrant rights. In 2017, a white supremacist murdered Heather Heyer and injured 19 others during counterprotests to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. On January 6, 2021, five people were left dead after a white-supremacist mob stormed the US Capitol building.
Despite this steady rise, such data is surprisingly difficult to find. There is no one agency or organization tracking globally networked white-supremacist violence.2
Next column: technology. During this same period since 2011, something else was happening: the reemergence and rebranding of AI as an endeavor of urgent and profound importance. Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, believes that AI will be a more important development in human history than the discovery of fire or electricity. These predictions are tied to techno-nationalism, the use of technology to serve nationalist ends. There is perhaps no clearer example of this than the pronouncements of Henry Kissinger, long associated with American imperialism. In 2018, Kissinger wrote a piece that appeared in The Atlantic, claiming that AI threatens to end the Enlightenment and possibly human history.
The importance of AI is often and quite explicitly framed in terms of a national competition with other countries. For example, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University recently published a report that posed the question, “Is China Beating the US to AI Supremacy?” This kind of us-against-them techno-nationalism fuels other forms of racism.
Final column: the commentary. Specifically, I’ve collected the writings of the last decade that misguided us about technology, about race, and on a few occasions about both.
Mostly, though, these topics exist in separate silos. The vast majority of writing about technology is devoid of any analysis of race, racism, or white supremacy. A simple exercise illustrates this point. Take one of those many lists of “must-read technology books” and do a simple Ctrl+F search within the text of any title for the words “race,” “racism,” or “white supremacy.” Without fail, the results are zero. In 2013, when Jamelle Bouie wrote a thoughtful piece about the white maleness of tech writing, white male entrepreneur Jason Calcanis objected to this observation with a Twitter thread, and Michael Arrington, founder of a technology news service, wrote in a blog post that his “brain database doesn’t see skin color.”
The commentary meant to help us understand white supremacy during this same time period was not very helpful either. In 2013, sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of the book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, wrote that “Among the white supremacists, when they speak of race consciousness, defending white people, protesting for equal rights for white people, they actually don’t mean all white people.” He called the angry white men of his book “America’s Everymen,” who are outraged by downward economic mobility, not by racial animus. Kimmel assured readers that “their rage is as sad as it is frightening, as impotent as it is shrill.”3
Fortunately, what I have been struggling to understand with my spreadsheet has been augmented by three excellent texts. When taken together, these books do the work of helping us connect the dots.
Never being able to pin down exactly what whiteness or AI is gives each a flexibility that is useful for wielding imperial power.
Reading Talia Lavin’s brave and necessary Culture Warlords is a little like watching someone perform a high-wire act; one is simultaneously riveted by their deft balance and horrified that it will all come to a macabre end. Lavin, who identifies as a bisexual Jewish woman, plunges headlong into conversations with some of the most violent white supremacists online. She does this through the subterfuge of disguise, in essence catfishing her way through a variety of platforms that cater to those committed to white-supremacist ideology.
Just when the narrative gets especially harrowing, Lavin pulls back and observes the media environment she’s waded into here. “A handful of technology companies,” she writes, “are responsible for the transformation of white supremacy into a white-internationalist movement, and for the coordination of fascists with one another across the country and the world. These companies—Google, Facebook, Twitter, Telegram—are unelected, wildly profitable, and largely unaccountable to the communities that stand to be wounded by this ideology.”
I object only slightly here. What Lavin calls the “white-internationalist movement”—what I call “globally networked white supremacy”—is not new. It was already forming in the 1990s on early internet websites and in Web 2.0 technologies like discussion boards.4
But Lavin is correct that this “handful” are responsible for the acceleration and spread of white-supremacist ideology, and the violence that inevitably follows it, around the world. And she connects this to the internet we all use as we go about our everyday lives. “Through the same internet on which you can order groceries, check out pictures of your friend’s cat, or chat up a prospective lover, neo-Nazis and budding neo-Nazis find one another and engage in a dance of mutual radicalization. The grim tango moves, for the most part, in only one direction: toward more and more egregious hate rhetoric; toward brutal harassment of selected targets; and eventually … toward real-world violence.”
Lavin calls out the lack of any meaningful regulation to address this danger, as we all listen to the platform companies’ failed promises to regulate themselves. “The idea of relying on corporate generosity to combat hate is naïve at best,” she writes. “Hate generates a profit.” This is an important insight, often overlooked on research about the far right: it is well funded and, for some, highly profitable.
Indeed, some argue that platform capitalism is racial capitalism.5 If we are to take seriously that equivalence, then we have to pay better attention to the way that money flows in and through globally networked white supremacy.6
Violent white-supremacist ideology and whiteness are not identical twins. But they are close cousins. Yarden Katz’s Artificial Whiteness: Politics and Ideology in Artificial Intelligence provides a useful frame for understanding both the historical arc of white domination under which we continue to suffer and the current wave of fascination with AI. Katz situates AI as a “technology of whiteness: a tool that not only serves the aims of white supremacy but also reflects the form of whiteness as an ideology.”
In this, Katz is supported by W. E. B. Du Bois, who wrote in 1910 that the “discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing.”7 Further in the same essay, Du Bois observed, as have lots of other scholars in the more than century since, that there is no real substance to whiteness. The boundary between who is and is not white is malleable.
Whiteness is an ever-changing category that entitles those included in it to a disproportionate share of social, political, and economic resources, especially land. The Homestead Act was a land-grant program that began in 1862 and continued until 1934. All together, the federal government gave away some 246 million acres in 160-acre tracts to more than 1.5 million white families, both native-born and foreign. All this land was unceded Indian territory, but, from the perspective of white settlers, it was unoccupied or being wasted. The effects of that program are evident today. As one researcher points out, nearly 20 percent of all white American adults, some 46 million Americans, are descended from the homesteaders who benefitted from that single land-based entitlement program.8 According to the Brookings Institution, in 2020 the average wealth of a white family was $929,800; that’s 6.7 times greater than Black average wealth ($138,100), and much of it is in the form of land and homeownership.9 Whiteness is a real estate scheme disguised as a racial identity.
Whiteness and AI are both concerned with land acquisition, Katz argues convincingly. Both are characterized by “nebulosity and opacity.” Never being able to pin down exactly what whiteness or AI is gives each a flexibility that is useful for wielding imperial power.
Can seeing white-supremacist violence and the whiteness of AI technology together offer a greater chance of defeating both?
Katz documents an earlier version of AI that emerged in the 1950s as part of the military. One advocate Katz cites believed that the entire military system would become a “vast computer system under centralized control, where the controller is yet another computer.” By the 1970s and 1980s, many worried that the US would fall behind Japan’s acquisition of AI. These concerns appeared in imperialist narratives with strong racial and gendered elements. Consider the original book cover for The Fifth Generation (1983), which featured the face of a Japanese woman superimposed on the Statue of Liberty; this image was meant to stoke fear in white Americans.
These kinds of extreme justifications were needed, Katz writes, “because what AI meant … remained unclear. A survey sent to practitioners in the early 1980s resulted in 143 definitions of the term.” Katz finds remarkable similarities, and some key differences, between this iteration of enthusiasm and what happened in the second decade of the 21st century.
In the 2010s, AI forcefully reemerged in the mainstream, Katz writes, “rolling off the tongues of politicians, academics, policy experts, and journalists. Money flowed into a range of academic, corporate, and state military initiatives on AI.” The money flows into building both AI-enabled technologies and, simultaneously, a cottage industry of experts to explain the social meaning of AI; “universities launched centers and degree programs on AI and society, think tanks began writing AI policy papers, and the media started talking about AI nonstop.”
What the money buys and the progressive discourse legitimates is, according to Katz, “new wind to established pursuits of capital. … The rebranded AI’s progressive rhetoric, and the subject’s association with abstract questions about the human mind, served to distract from these tangible pursuits,” like land grabs and dispossession. He substantiates these claims by examining the wealthy donors and backers behind some of the most prestigious research centers and consistently finds some sort of exploitation, with land accumulation and dispossession as the root cause.
One early proponent of AI whom Katz writes about testified before a US congressional hearing in the 1980s about the importance of AI, saying, “The era of reasoning machine is inevitable. … It is the manifest destiny of computing.” Manifest destiny, of course, refers to the 19th-century belief that white-settler expansion into the US was both justified and inevitable. In a famous painting called American Progress (1872), artist John Gast depicts an angelic white woman, Columbia, as the personification of the United States; she appears above, leading civilization westward and driving out Indigenous peoples. Her symbols of civilization include a telegraph wire (the internet of the day) and a book. Little has changed in the ensuing decades. As James Mickens, a Harvard computer scientist, observes, many of the current disasters of the tech industry are due to what he calls the doctrine of “technological manifest destiny,” a belief that technology is value neutral and therefore will automatically and inevitably lead to “progress.”
“The paradox between liberty and racism was no paradox at all,” explains eminent historian Tyler Stovall; “instead, racial distinctions played a key role in the rise of modern ideas of freedom and cannot be separated from those ideas.” Stovall shows how the histories of freedom and racism are deeply intertwined in France and the US in his powerful, sweeping, and thoroughly researched White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea. Stovall riffs on the way Enlightenment ideals, such as “liberty,” gave rise to modern conceptions of freedom and democracy. But in so doing, he demonstrates how freedom and democracy were central to the transatlantic slave trade, Native American genocide, and systemic racial discrimination.
Stovall, whose expertise is in French history, has an understandable focus on the histories of France and the United States, yet his overall approach to the subject of white freedom in the modern era is global. His book explores the myriad ways the concept of liberty is imbued with whiteness, so much so that to be “white” is to be “free” by definition.
For me, one of the most fruitful explorations in Stovall’s text is his disquisition on the Statue of Liberty as “perhaps America’s leading icon of white freedom.” Stovall details how and why the Statue of Liberty “became a welcoming symbol of immigration when European immigrants became white.” The artists behind the sculpture, Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye and Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, personally supported the cause of abolition. But upon touring the US, they realized that the Confederate narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction had gained traction throughout the country. So they changed the original design of the statue holding broken chains in her hand as a symbol of emancipation from slavery to her holding a book of law. The statue that stands in New York Harbor today does include broken chains at her feet, but they are effectively hidden by the pedestal and by her robe. Stovall writes, “When Americans celebrated the inauguration of the Statue of Liberty in 1886 they celebrated a racialized vision of liberty; the original statue may not have been Black”—as a persistent but unsubstantiated rumor has it—“but the one they embraced was certainly white. Right from the beginning of its history in America, therefore, the Statue of Liberty was a powerful representation of white freedom.”
Stovall drives home this point by noting that “no one proposed building similar statues on the US-Mexico border, in Miami, or on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, to mark these new waves of immigration, and certainly no one suggested building a similar memorial in Charleston, South Carolina, or other ports involved in the Middle Passage.” The Statue of Liberty, like the iconic Columbia of John Gast’s painting, is a white lady, championing the cause of white domination.
Where I grew up in Texas, the phrase “free, white, and 21” was a common way to describe people who embodied the history Stovall writes about. To be raised with the notion that once I reached adulthood (21) I could do anything I wanted (free, white) offered an expansiveness that devours all in its path. It is what psychoanalyst Donald Moss refers to as an “epistemology of entitled dominion,” in which we who are raised white “are licensed at birth, and therefore entitled, to find, capture, dissect, and overpower our targeted objects. As such, we will finally come to know and take dominion over them.”10 It is this form of whiteness, and the underlying epistemology of entitled whiteness, that drives platform capitalism.
At the end of White Freedom, Stovall summarizes our predicament in this way: “In a world that embraces racial equality in theory, whiteness is ultimately untenable, a burden as well as a privilege. In the last analysis, will we find a way to free our societies from the need for whiteness?”
If we want to live in a time and place where white-supremacist violence is no longer part of the world, we must take the messages in these three texts seriously. We must first acknowledge the very real threat that those committed to white-supremacist ideology pose to us all. Then we must recognize the way that AI and whiteness are intertwined in the service of empire. And ultimately we must find a way to eliminate our need for whiteness.
This article was commissioned by Mona Sloane.
- Stephen Cave and Kanta Dihal, “The Whiteness of AI,” Philosophy and Technology, vol. 33, no. 4 (2020). ↩
- Of course, there is the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) at the University of Maryland, affiliated with the Department of Homeland Security. The frame of “global terrorism” lacks the specificity of my intended focus on white-supremacist violence and, in my view, obfuscates more than it illuminates by equating all forms of terrorism. This error of analysis repeats in other places; for example, in the Wikipedia entry on “Terrorism in the United States,” which misses many of the entries at “Right-Wing Terror Attacks.” ↩
- Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (Nation Books, 2013), pp. 244, 251; see also “America’s Angriest White Men,” Salon, November 17, 2013. ↩
- See, for example, Jessie Daniels, Cyber Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). ↩
- Tressie McMillan Cottom, “Where Platform Capitalism and Racial Capitalism Meet: The Sociology of Race and Racism in the Digital Society,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, vol. 6, no. 4 (2020). ↩
- See, for example, Rebecca Ballhaus, Khadeeja Safdar, and Shalini Ramachandran, “Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, Forceful on Jan. 6, Privately Are in Turmoil,” Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2021, for an excellent example of reporting that tracks the circulation of financial systems within white-supremacist groups and efforts to shut them down by restricting access to those systems. ↩
- W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk” (1910), in Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (Harcourt, Brace, 1920). ↩
- Historian Keri Leigh Merritt, cited in Nikole Hannah-Jones, “What Is Owed,” New York Times Magazine, June 24, 2020. ↩
- Kriston McIntosh et al., “Examining the Black-White Wealth Gap,” Brookings Institution, February 27, 2020. ↩
- Donald Moss, “On Having Whiteness,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, vol. 69, no. 2 (2021). ↩