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Whose bodies do we see?

May 14, 2021, 8:30 PM UTC

The anniversary of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, Old Navy swings and misses, a board game aims to combat anti-Asian hate, and what to make of the commoditization of the pain of people of color? Bonus: My colleague Jonathan Vanian unpacks important new research that paints a grim AI-fueled future for Black and Latino workers.

But first, here’s your mask mandate news, in Haiku.

Please continue to 
wear your mask unless you are
all vaccinated

and also outdoors
and not still eleven years
old, or at the food

court, but by yourself.
And then you can take it off.
But not if you are 

in the airport or
subway, or a mosh pit or
other retrograde

pastime except flag-
pole sitting which should be fine.
Better wash your hands.

Wishing you a confusion-free and relaxing weekend. 

Ellen McGirt

In Brief

The rise of artificial intelligence and related automation technologies will soon disrupt the working lives of people of color.

That’s one of the conclusions from new research released by the startup Faethm, which uses data science to analyze the impact of new technologies on companies. Of particular concern is COVID-19’s influence on businesses that have rushed to implement automation tools to cut costs during tough economic times.

The unfortunate reality is that most jobs that encompass tasks that can be automated by cutting-edge technology —think store clerks or workers who do data-entry tasks — are held by Black and Hispanic Americans, the research found. Essentially, the rise of technology that has paved the way for cashierless stores means that fewer human clerks will be needed in the future, and new software that automates tasks like entering numbers into spreadsheets, will reduce the need for companies to hire as many clerical workers as they once needed.

The research, based on U.S. census data, analyzed the food, education, finance, healthcare, and retail industries to determine which jobs and roles were most likely to be automated. Consider the healthcare industry:

For example, if we deep dive on the healthcare industry, which has an above- average representation of Black Americans, we see that nearly 90% of the Black workers reside in roles with very easily replaceable skills, which puts them at greater risk of job loss. The same is true for Hispanic workers in healthcare. This is significantly different than White people in healthcare, with only 75% of populations holding easily replaceable skills.

The grim job outlook is not likely to improve anytime soon for Black and Hispanic Americans, a tragedy considering the coronavirus pandemic has hit these communities particularly hard.

“I think it’s unrealistic that companies are going to stop digital transformation,” said Jessica Brown, Faethm’s director of partnerships for America. “It’s coming, it’s happening.”

Companies will often say that A.I. will augment jobs, and that workers whose roles can be automated will be moved to more creative, rewarding positions. But, that’s a “gross oversimplification,” said Faethm vice president of Americas Stephen Farrell.

Even if workers are moved to different positions, there’s no guarantees that those roles will pay the same.

“Are we asking people to take a massive pay cut?” Farrell commented. “Is it a massive change?”

Corporate HR teams should be communicating with CIOs or other senior executives to understand how technologies that management wants to pursue may affect workers, Farrell explained. Too often, companies overlook how technologies can affect the career-paths of their workers, he said.

Businesses should invest in training programs that offer workers clear ways to progress in their careers, and these plans should include incentives.

For instance, Farrell said that an unspecified logistics company found it difficult to hire workers, who understandably, are reluctant to become truck drivers knowing that self-driving trucks are around the corner. Hispanic men, as the Latinx in AI group previously noted, comprise a significant portion of truck drivers.

In this case, the company could have created an incentive program to help drivers build careers in the logistics industry outside of merely driving. It would be akin to getting an associates degree or learning additional skills to keep them employable at the company when the inevitable comes and their driving duties are no longer needed, he explained.

These education or training programs won’t come cheap, but if executives want to help their workers of color whose jobs may be at risk, they need to be prepared to invest in their livelihoods.

“Yes it might be uncomfortable, and yes it might be difficult, but realistically, we can’t take the same actions and expect different outcomes,” Brown said.

Jonathan Vanian 

On Point

Juneteenth: Old Navy didn’t understand the assignment. Juneteenth, the suddenly popular and always earnest holiday acknowledging the emancipation of formerly enslaved Black Americans, has been canceled for retailer Old Navy. The problem: A failed attempt to pitch 300 Black online influencers to do something online in a Juneteenth-branded shirt. While the rate offered for their participation was, evidently, “arguably pitiful,” the execution drew fire for appearing to capitalize on what should be an important holiday. The company was forced to pull the campaign. Mavrck, the influencer agency hired to conduct the promotion, issued an expla-pology for the pitch.
Fashion United

Female homeowners of color: Find a white male friend. Carlette Duffy, a homeowner in a historic neighborhood in Indianapolis, was worried she was being low-balled after two home appraisals came back out of sync with neighboring homes. Duffy, who is Black, received two appraisals, valued it at $125,000 and $110,000, respectively. But when she asked the white husband of a friend to stand in as the owner during a third appraiser visit, the new home’s value shot up to $259,000. She’s filed a complaint against the mortgage lenders and appraisers and has found some valuable allies. Click through for how she pulled it off.

A board game that aims to combat anti-AAPI racism. Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall is a role-playing tabletop game created by game designers Banana Chan and Sen-Foong Lim. The setting is a 1920’s Chinese family running a restaurant in a North American Chinatown, and the game play (which sounds like it has the communal storytelling vibe of a Dungeons and Dragons) involves rolling the dice to fight racism by day and….vampires by night. Jianghsi is a legendary type of vampire; the name means “stiff corpse” in Mandarin. The idea, successfully Kickstarted and slated for a summer release, was risky. “I have trouble sleeping just because I hope that nothing in this game is going to impact how people treat Asian Americans or make them think all Asian Americans are just like the characters portrayed in this game,” Chan tells HuffPost. To prevent this, the pair worked with cultural consultants to create a rulebook that is filled with prompts about how to portray people in the service industry, and avoid casual racism while portraying characters. A fascinating read. (This story from HuffPost’s Asian Americans Out Loud project, which highlights Asian American artists and activists.)

The Philadelphia health commissioner resigns after destroying the remains of MOVE victims. About four years ago, remains, including bone fragments, from victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia (see below) were discovered at the city’s medical examiner’s office, an egregious oversight on its own. (In April, the Penn Museum arranged to return bone fragments from one child victim, in an equally egregious story.) But Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner, resigned yesterday after admitting he’d arranged for the remains to be cremated without identifying them or notifying any family members. “This action lacked empathy for the victims, their family, and the deep pain that the MOVE bombing has brought to our city for nearly four decades,” said Mayor Jim Kenney.
The Inquirer

On background

What you need to know about the MOVE bombing. This week marks the thirty-sixth anniversary of the day that Philadelphia police dropped a bomb from a helicopter into a residential neighborhood, killing 11 people, including five children. They were targeting a small but radical organization called MOVE, a fringe group with passionate ideas about animal rights and technology, but who didn’t fit neatly with other Black power ideologies at the time. NPR’s Gene Demby, who grew up about 20 minutes away from the site, did a deep dive into the “cataclysmic” incident in 2015, only to discover that it wasn’t more widely known—and it deserves to be. In addition to being one of the most extraordinary examples of conflict between the police and Black communities, the bombing leveled a neighborhood full of middle-class homeowners and remains largely abandoned today. It was partly the time, he thinks. “The MOVE story faded into relative obscurity partly because no one connects with their cause today…and largely because the mechanisms to preserve the story weren't in place yet.”


Whose bodies do we see? Anne Anlin Cheng, a comparative race scholar and author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief, and Ornamentalism, delves into the unique complexities experienced by many Asian American in a renewed age of hate crimes. For one thing, it becomes a complicated affair when the perpetrator of a hate crime is Black, as AAPI victims struggle with perpetuating stereotypes about Black people embedded in the “model minority” myth. “They are always caught in a no-win position between whites and Black Americans,” she writes. “They are thought to be ‘white adjacent,’ but of course they can never belong to the club.” And yet, as Americans begin to find meaningful ways to respond to the violence, fear, and grief experienced by Asian Americans, she asks an important question about the images and video of violence that triggered the response. “Is this indeed what it takes? A political imagination (or, really, lack thereof) that predicates recognition on the price of visible harm?”
New York Times

Whose bodies do we see, part two  As the COVID-related tragedy continues to unfold in India, Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and author, calls out Western media for its lurid approach to covering a desperately important story. The graphic scenes of the dead and dying would be unacceptable in Western settings, he says, and the media has invaded emergency rooms and private homes, to turn anguish into spectacle. “For example, coverage of mass graves being dug to accommodate New York City’s early surge of COVID-19 fatalities featured sanitized images of misty tree-lined fields,” he writes. “By contrast, India’s pandemic experience will be remembered for the haunting images of bodies burning on pyres – images that the Western media beamed around the world.” This happens regularly, he says, citing the 2011 Fukushima disaster and the Ebola outbreak. Maybe the Pulitzers are to blame? Hmmm.
Project Syndicate


This edition of raceAhead is edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz

Today's mood board

A look back at a legend, Michelle Kwan. Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Allsport/Getty Images

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