Reflections on Technology and Social Justice

In continuing recognition of the importance of the racial justice conversation for ethical AI in many applications, we are delighted to reprint with permission the following essay from July 7 on the All Things New.Tech blog created by our Founding Member Paul Taylor, teaching pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto.  Paul’s co-blogger, Joy Chiew, lays out considerations for engagement from her own technology background in a wise and highly readable way. Ed.

 

The recent tragedies surrounding racism have sparked outrage, pain, and sadness throughout the country. After reading stories about each of the victims–Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Christian Cooper, George Floyd, and countless others–many of us grieved and protested. I also wanted to find some meaningful way to respond. One topic that has been on my mind relates to the impact of COVID-19 on social inequality, technology, and theology, and I felt that addressing this topic now was timely.

Although this essay isn’t explicitly about Black Lives Matter, it serves as a tribute to those above and others who have suffered from racial and socioeconomic injustice. I also hope that it inspires readers to think critically about technology’s role in our current crises and how Christians can do their part to strive for a more just society.

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As we have witnessed over the past almost half year, our world is fraught with unprecedented, complex challenges. In particular, COVID-19 has surfaced issues surrounding pre-existing racial and socioeconomic inequities1,2 in the United States.

Based on data segmenting COVID-19 cases by race, African Americans have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.3 This piece by Vox shows reasons that link to structural racism.4 The risk of getting COVID-19 increases when a person has chronic illness. With many black Americans already suffering high rates of chronic illness, racial disparities in healthcare compound their susceptibility to COVID-19. Additionally, racial segregation has contributed to higher risk of COVID-19. Subject to discriminatory practices like redlining, African Americans lack the physical and social mobility to access food and education. Trapped in poverty, they’re more likely to get sick.

While I mention these examples with African Americans, the pandemic has affected other groups as well. We’ve seen increased animosity and hate crimes against Asian Americans. And even though California has been able to provide shelter to the homeless and release the incarcerated during the pandemic, issues surrounding homelessness and mass incarceration were actually long-standing but had been ignored. Across the board, people of color and those who have been marginalized in society have been especially hard hit by COVID-19. 

How is technology related to these issues?

One of the mantras of the technology industry is that technology can solve society’s biggest issues. A few months ago, I began wondering about its role in some of the racial and socioeconomic inequities I was reading about. The answer to my question was mixed.

On the positive side, technology has reduced some of these inequities. Recently, the NY Times highlighted a startup called Propel, which helps food stamp recipients with needs such as accessing benefits and applying for jobs. And in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the company has created practical guides to pandemic-related government services and provides $1000 cash payments to customers. This is a great example of a tech company helping the vulnerable during an economically challenging time.

At the same time, technology has promoted inequity in numerous ways. 

This op-ed on technology’s role in perpetuating systemic racism, for example, lays out a chilling scenario of how even technology designed to stop COVID-19 may be used to oppress minorities:

“But something both curious and tragic happened. We discovered that black people, Latinx people, and indigenous populations were disproportionately infected and affected. Suddenly, we also became a national problem; we disproportionately threatened to spread the virus. […] It makes you wonder how long it will take for law enforcement to deploy those technologies we first designed to fight COVID-19 to quell the threat that black people supposedly pose to the nation’s safety.”

We also see technology worsening the socioeconomic divide between the haves and have-nots. Despite the fact that technology makes remote work easy, socioeconomic status dictates different levels of working privilege during the outbreak. Many with low-income jobs5, such as grocery clerks and warehouse workers, have been deemed essential during the pandemic and thus don’t have the option of fully social distancing or teleworking. And in response to viral spread in workplaces, many of these essential workers have advocated for better wages, sick leave policies, and other benefits–unfortunately to very little avail. In fact, an Amazon warehouse worker, Christian Smalls, was supposedly fired for organizing a protest for better work safety conditions, and other activists were fired as well. The company leadership’s response was so heinous that the VP of engineering Tim Bray quit.

For students across the country, even though Zoom has become the most widely-used platform for online learning, there are stark differences in education access based on where students live. In particular, poor urban neighborhoods and remote rural areas have suffered the most from lack of good internet connectivity.

If technology improves yet also exacerbates racial and socioeconomic inequities, how can we as Christians reconcile these opposing stances? And how do we understand technology’s role in social justice6?

What is biblical justice?

Before answering those questions, I’d like to lay out some biblical principles behind justice. Christians often say that God is a God of justice. But what does that mean, and why is God’s justice important?

Paul Louis Metzger sums up the answers to these questions well in this article from Christianity Today:

“Justice flows from God’s heart and character. As true and good, God seeks to make the object of his holy love [humanity] whole. This is what motivates God throughout the Old and New Testaments in his judgments on sin and injustice.” 

We can also refer to two passages in the Old Testament that point to justice. Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

In Amos 5:21-24, God chastises the Israelites, his chosen people, for following the rituals of the law yet failing to recognize the greater intent of the law:

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Taken together, I want to highlight three key points about biblical justice:

  1. God’s heart is for justice.
  2. He hates injustice and does not tolerate it.
  3. The goal of God’s justice is restoration.

What does the Bible say about social justice?

What is the relationship between biblical justice and social justice–defined as “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society”? I believe that from a Christian perspective, social justice stems from biblical justice. If the purpose of biblical justice is restoration, then social justice brings wholeness to society and extends from God’s desire to redeem our world broken by sin.

So what does this wholeness look like in biblical terms?

To answer this question, we should return to the creation story. As mentioned in this previous post on diversitythe fact that every person is created in the image of God means that God values all of humanity equally–regardless of what we look like, where we came from, or what our socioeconomic status is. In fact, Paul states in Galatians 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” While the context of the passage is specifically about church community, this statement about racial and socioeconomic equity (and equality) can also represent God’s greater vision for the world.

Based on this theology, the Bible compels us to carry out this vision in different ways. With regards to socioeconomic justice, for example, we see the early church providing for the needs of the poor and marginalized (Acts 4). Also, like some of the Old Testament prophets, James condemns oppression of the poor and favoritism towards the rich (James 2:1-13). These examples show that Christians have a responsibility to value those deemed unworthy by society, and to pursue equity for all people from diverse backgrounds. 

What is technology’s role in social justice?

With a theological understanding of social justice, we can now turn to our original questions about technology: “If technology solves yet also exacerbates racial and socioeconomic inequities, how can we as Christians reconcile these opposing stances? And how do we understand technology’s role in social justice?”

Many of us are understandably optimistic about technology’s potential in solving society’s problems. Building more technology can help those oppressed by racial and socioeconomic injustice. Earlier, I highlighted the tech company Propel, which has built an app for those most affected by the pandemic. To address the problem of limited internet access in specific areas, companies like SpaceX are building networks to provide low latency internet service. This will help broaden access to online learning for all students, for example, and reduce educational gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines. And there are many other examples not mentioned here.

However, it’s important to concede that racial and socioeconomic inequities are ultimately human problems that need holistic solutions. Technology isn’t the only solution to a complex, painful issue marked by oppression and deep-seated hatred. It serves as one solution among many interconnected ones.

Since racial and socioeconomic inequities are a systemic and structural problem, there needs to be cooperative action at many different levels. First and foremost, all communities and individuals must acknowledge the harmful biases–conscious or unconscious–that permeate our political, economic, and social systems. From there, we can work towards eliminating these biases in different spheres. We need government officials enacting fairer laws and policies that provide equitable access to food, education, technology, healthcare, and other basic rights.7 We also need diverse organizations championing equity and working to dismantle deeply embedded social divides in schools, workplaces, and other spaces. And as part of churches and local communities, we should actively support those hurt by deep injustices–whether it’s through volunteering, donating to worthy causes, or being open to having difficult conversations.

Let justice roll down

The current pandemic has exposed and deepened social divides in the United States. In the face of this injustice–some of which is connected with technology–there is one important question we as Christians must ask ourselves.

How will we choose to respond?

In the Christianity Today article I mentioned earlier, I encountered this powerful statement by Metzger: “As those justified by faith in the God of all justice, we [Christians] are to experience the wholeness that he brings and extend it as citizens of his kingdom.” That means in order to make things right in an unjust world, we need to exemplify God’s restorative work as His people. Since God has restored us through sacrificial love, how do we live out restoration in our love for others? Do we have the same heart for justice that God does?

The ways each of us carries out this justice may look different. But one thing is clear. Racial and socioeconomic inequities should concern us because God cares about them. And if we have His heart for justice, we all must continue to fight until “justice roll[s] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Footnotes

1 I use the term inequity, which means “a difference in the distribution or allocation of a resource between groups (usually expressed as group specific rates).” In other words, this pertains to whether different groups have access to the same opportunities. Equity is different from equality. To visualize the difference.

2 Not addressed in this post, but these inequities also include gender inequities.

3 For a more comprehensive analysis on coronavirus risk and racial inequity, refer to this article.

4 Defined as “A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.” Source: https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/docs/rcc/RCC-Structural-Racism-Glossary.pdf.

5 I recognize that medical professionals, for example, fall under the category of “essential workers” even though they are not considered low-income. Although they are not included for the purpose of this post, they face similar high risks and challenges that should be acknowledged.

6 I am aware that the concept of social justice can be divisive within Christian circles. My intent in writing about social justice is not to promote any particular political or social agenda. Rather, my post aims to be theologically motivated. I believe that Christians should be aware of the injustices that are happening around us and consider how to live out God’s justice–acts of social justice being one of the ways to do this.

7 The House recently passed the Moving Forward Act, which will provide high-speed broadband to underserved areas: https://www.engadget.com/house-approves-100-billion-broadband-funding-010021883.html.

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