There Are Other Suns: Ruha Benjamin in Conversation with Cathy O’Neil Imagining Abolitionist Technology

This past October, associate professor of African American Studies, Ruha Benjamin presented on their new book, “Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code” and sat in conversation with author and data scientist, Cathy O’Neil. Who is perhaps most well known for their 2016 bestseller, “Weapons of Math Destruction”. 

The presentation and discussion, held at Housing Works Bookstore in SoHo, centered on “algorithmic bias” an issue of increasing recognition for scholars, researchers, and activists working at the intersections of social justice and technology. The most critical takeaway from this discussion, however might be the need to take a closer look at the assumption that that the technical and the social ever exist separately from one another. It’s this assumption; that technology is somehow a neutral space or apolitical artifact that Dr. Benjamin’s book works to dismantle. 

The event began with D. Benjamin giving a short summary of their path into this research. She gave audience members three provocations to hold unto as she walked us through her conception of the “New Jim Code”. Based Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow, Dr Benjamin uses New Jim Code to describe the confluence of coded bias (our inherent bias built knowingly and unknowingly into the machine) and the supposed objectivity of technology (a mixture of beliefs that tech is a neutral tool without politics + the idea that the mathematical operates beyond or outside of the realm of the social); “ [New Jim Code is] innovation that enables containment but appears fairer than ‘more explicit’ forms of racialized bias that preceded it” (Benjamin 2019)

1.”Racism is Productive”

Here Dr. Benjamin pointed to the ways in which sociologists often think of race as “socially constructed”. This means that race and racism are not naturally occurring phenomena, but made, performed and informed by social norms. To a certain degree, particularly now that terms like “intersectionality” have become mainstream, the idea of race along with other vectors of power like gender, orientation and ability as socially constructed isn’t mind-blowing. But the idea of race being a thing that constructs as well as being constructed is. 

“Racism produces things of value to some even as they wreak havoc on others” (Benjamin, 2019)

It should be no surprise then that new forms of racism, that are actually manifestations, expansions or iterations on previous forms come into being, particularly in and around technology.

2. “Race and Technology are Co-Constructed”

Through this provocation Dr. Benjamin asks the audience to consider the ways that race and technology shape one another and inform one another. Particularly within contemporary liberal “diversity” rhetoric, we are taught to think of racism as a mistake or aberration, a bug in the proper functioning of the system of Western society. But racism is not a bug in the machine, it’s part of the software. So we can’t only frame issues of bias in tech in terms of social “impacts”, what’s more critical is considering the social “inputs”  that go unacknowledged but are also fed into the black box. Further these inputs “allow some inventions to appear inevitable and desirable.” 

3. “Imagination is a Battleground”

Dr. Benjamin considers imagination a “contested field of action”. The scope of imagination delimits what forms of social and political relationships are possible, both for the oppressed and those contributing to and profiting from the oppression of others. 

“Most people are forced to live inside someone else’s imagination” – (Benjamin & O’Neil 2019) 

Thinking about the differentials of imagination. The places where we enter or be placed within another’s imagination are site where power operates, Any designed space fiction or other immersive narratives are living inside someone’s imagination as is living within a nation state, within an institution, inside any designed space or interaction. We might ask then who are the imagners 

“The nightmares that many people are forced to endure are the underside of elite fantasies…Racism produces this fragmented imagination; misery for some and monopoly for others”

What does our fight for justice and liberation on the battleground of imagination look like? What does it mean for information professionals to be a part of this battle? For one, we must consider the way bias starts at the point of conceptualizing what problem exists that tech can then be consulted or created as solution to. This means looking at who is doing the imagining and how do the social norms and social fictions they have internalized inform what they can understand as “a problem to be fixed. Further our work has to involve not only critiquing and disassembling current systemic and systems of harm but also imagining and building the alternative worlds and futures we want to exist. Technology can potentially be a critical tool for that work, but that work must be approached through interrogating our own positions within the matrix of domination, and carried out with intention and with the most radical imaginings. I am reminded here of the speculative fiction collection, Octavia’s Brood, edited by community organizers Wahlidah Imarisha and Adrienne Marie Browne and named after the critically acclaimed matriarch of Black Speculative Fiction, Octavia Butler. The major thesis of the collection is the idea that all social justice work can and must be speculative work, because to organize towards liberation is to attempt building worlds that do not exist.  

Abolition then  entails not only bringing harmful systems to an end but imaging what we want to come next. By no coincidence, Dr. Benjamin quoted Octavia Butler during Q.A. when two audience members asked one for a timeline of community action around the battle for imagination in technology, while a follow up asked for more clarification on imagination as a call to action. or examples of what reclaiming imagination might look like and why it is important. 

Dr. Benjamin clarifies that her call to imagination is meant to open it up as a space for theory and praxis. She warns that imagination as a productive tool or space can be co-opted by entities and for aims that want nothing to do with building actual alternatives to the status quo. Further, there is a limit to what imagination, on its own, can accomplish. But it must be part of the work. 

In example, Dr. Benjamin firstly brings up a 2018 Stanford psychology study titled “The Numbers don’t Speak for Themselves”. The study hypothesis took up the idea that “rationality” could win over racism, if people we presented with the statistical evidence of systemic racism within the criminal justice system, they would have no logical choice but to accept it’s existence and support progressive policies that worked to undermine it. This data was presented to people living within the Bay Area, not exactly where one imagines secret racist nodes. But racism operates most violently and most insidiously in the banal and well meaning. According to Dr. Benjamin,  what researchers found however was exposure to the data actually made their sample participants more likely to support stronger punitive measures not progressive reform. These findings run counter to the idea that more data draws an inevitable straight line toward social change. Something else is happening, or not happening, within the expanse between the data and transformative change. Some names for this space that were offered include Clauida Rankine’s “racial imaginary” or interpretive frames. People will fill this space, or take from this space the stories that work for the worldviews they already have. The data is not enough Dr.Benjamin’s call to imagination is a call for us to be “more rigorous” about this space.  

“We have to become more deliberate and rigorous about this space in the middle. Whatever you want to call that; you can call it imagination, culture, lenses, frameworks whatever it is. But a lot of times we save our rigor and our investment for trying to produce the data. As if it’s gonna lead in some straightforward way towards to the changes what we hope [for]. 

I think we need to become not only more rigorous but more creative in shaping the stories, the interpretations and not accepting the dominant story about why people are kept in cages. That is exactly what an abolitionist imagination seeks to do. We have to work with that in a more deliberate way instead of hoping people will come to that on their own.” – 

In attempting to define what the goal of abolitionist technologies are and what a liberatory imagination is,  Dr Benjamin refers to herself as a student of Octavia Butler, paraphrasing her by saying “there’s nothing new under the sun, but there are other suns”. The liberative imagination then is about taking on the mantle of building worlds within worlds, models of what futures we want to exist. 

Works Cited:

Benjamin, R & O’Neil, C. (2019, October). Race After Technology. Presentation and Pane Discussion at Housing Works Bookstore, New York, NY.

Ruha BenJamin vs. The New Jim Code

By Char Jeré

Ruha Benjamin’s talk on Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code was just as raw as the topic itself. It came with no filters, no disclaimers and no trigger warnings— it wasn’t for the precious, it was for the people whose lives depend on such brutal honesty. This moment with Benjamin felt like an astral projection, the experience catapulting me from a space where darkness was being vilified to a place where it is now finally embraced. During this talk, it seemed like Benjamin was shepherding us out of our own black boxes of internalized racism and into clarity. After her three provocations, I was called to take a left out of my body and a right into my imagination—the directions were simple but you still needed to know them, as a right out of my body could have led me back into someone else’s imagination, essentially up the creek without a paddle. Benjamin stated that, “Most people are forced to live inside of someone else’s imagination”, citing Adrienne Marie Brown’s book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, as an inspiration. As Brown explains in her book, “I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.”. Power does indeed lie in the ability to imagine but what happens when you have an old, tiresome imagination that turns innocent people into potential threats, “superpredators” and even worse, demons? These words have all been weaponized by top political figures, from Hillary Clinton to killer cops (like Darren Wilson) against African Americans for centuries. Officer Wilson described Michael Brown as a demon before he brutally shot and killed the 18-year-old on the streets in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Audre Lorde would call such things “imagination without insight” in her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury”.

A photograph from the exhibit on African-American progress, on view inside the Palace of Social Economy at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. (Library of Congress)

I started thinking more deeply about my daily interactions with intrusive, white-bred artifacts; Benjamin quoted Langdon Winner as saying “Artifacts have politics.”. The residues of white inferiority have been scattered strategically around us and are the default within the design and ultimately, within the system. White bias exists in so many facets of our daily lives that it often becomes disturbingly inconspicuous. Kara Walker states that with monuments and memorials, “…there’s this very peculiar quality that they have of being completely invisible— the larger they are, in fact, the more they sink into the background.” The effects of this phenomenon (white inferiority) were having fun double-dutching and hopscotching through my genes like school kids on summer break. Right there in my cold metal folding chair, I sat realizing that every new technology’s job was not only to reintroduce us to new trauma but to preserve the intergenerational trauma in my DNA. The matrix of oppression could be explicit but it could also be obscure; it could be abrasive while also being agreeable, moonlighting as a “serve and protector”. It was as disruptive as light is to darkness but useless against reason and true innovation. Ruha Benjamin pushes us to examine our interiority, so we no longer need to put up with the mediocrity of settler colonialism. She wants us to liberate ourselves so we can start truly innovating change. We are now impenetrable and have received our reparative vaccinations against white redundancy that have been killing and stagnating us for centuries. It is time to finally welcome modernity. In Safia Elhillo’s book The January Children, she references a quote by Adonis, “How many centuries deep is your wound.”. This was not a question–it was a critical examination of race, ethnicity, class and gender through rhetoric. My question is: when they colonize Mars, will racism still be en vogue?

I am the God of war! ARrrrrghhhh!!!!!

“THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE.” Alisha Wormsley’s billboard exclaims, hovering over an area in Pittsburgh that has seen rapid changes from “re-development” projects and gentrification. We are in the future just by existing in this present moment but for me it is not just about being there, it’s about where we are there. During the talk-back, people who were living in public housing explained that their landlord installed facial recognition software without their consent. They also expressed concern about their right to privacy. New technology has never been empathetic to the needs of marginalized people, which means that designers do not envision us in the future. Firearms, steam engines, the Cotton Gin and the internet are all examples of how technological advances keep oppression well-fed. As Benjamin shifted her talk from the well-documented problems of white technological setbacks to solutions on how to mobilize against these “New Jim Codes”, she states this: “Like abolitionist practices of a previous era, not all manners of resistance and getting free should be exposed…calls for abolition are never simply about bringing harmful systems to an end but also about envisioning new ones…”.

(Image courtesy of Jon Rubin)

People who have been marginalized and made the most vulnerable are constantly working and fighting to adjust their user settings, in turn causing them to consistently relive their own trauma. Benjamin declared, “The nightmares that many people are forced to endure are the underside of elite fantasies about efficiency, profit, and social control.”. Her declarations are the tuning forks of knowledge–they are our first post-apocalyptic radio broadcast that blares the coordinates of liberation. Benjamin shows us that there are more of us out there, imagining and creating outside of the logics we had internalized; we are building our own micro-revolutions. She reassures us that nothing is permanent, especially not oppression. In thinking about what some historians call “slave-breeding”, or coerced sexual-reproduction (eugenics) during slavery in the Americas, instead of UXD, I started repeating “HXD, HXD…HXD,” for Human Experiment Design, or more specifically, the process of manipulating human behavior and genetics through brutality, mortality, and corporeality. People have been and still are being domesticated like animals and plants, which has real-world implications. The whip, the gun, the white man and capitalism are all clinging tightly to our cells like a gene mutation.

There was a sense of urgency in Benjamin’s voice that activated the ancestor memory card deeply embedded within my DNA, sending RNA and Cas9 by way of gene-drive technology to isolate trauma, cut it out and be rid of it once and for all. The idea of eliminating white inferiority from our genetic coding is liberating but to think that we possess the power to free our ancestors who came before (and will surely come after) has started to consume me. She pointed to Pierre Bourdieu as saying that, “the way you know you have a powerful system is that you no longer need the conductor, people just orchestrate themselves. You internalize it and [that’s how] we keep it going.”. She goes on to say that colorism is not perpetuated in the black community or other communities of color by a white man standing there and saying “you are better, you are worse, you are more valued…it’s through the internalization of the logic that we continue to reproduce amongst ourselves.”. Suffering is a trillion-dollar, sadistic business that finds joy and comfort in exploiting pain—capitalism relies heavily on its reproduction through the germ cell lineage. We have no choice but to disrupt this industry by denying it access to the next generation.  

The night of the talk, Benjamin felt like Morpheus from the Matrix but she didn’t give us the option to be complacent anymore; there was only one pill. The doors of the Housing Works were the threshold of the linear perception of time; walking through them meant there was no going back. We were all accountable because we were now all armed with the knowledge and inspiration to bring about our own insurrections. There was an energy in the room that I hadn’t felt since my radical Black feminist seminar in undergrad, which was both optimistic and restorative. When Harriet Tubman walked by a plantation singing “Steal Away” and “Sweet Chariot”, that was her way of communicating that it was time to move and time to break free. Likewise, when Ruha Benjamin took the stage, her provocations were like the songs of the Underground Railroad, her last being the most profound: “The imagination is a contested field of action, not an ephemeral afterthought that we have a luxury to dismiss or romanticize but a resource, a battleground, an input and output of tech and social order.”.


Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press

Archiving Colonialism: The Politics and Ethics of the Archive

How does the archive become a space of engagement? What are the ethical obligations of the archive? How do we draw attention to otherwise invisible voices? How does raw data become material for surveillance? Who owns the past? These were the questions that guided “Archiving Colonialism” a panel discussion hosted by Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women, as part of the larger conference “The Politics and Ethics of the Archive.” According to keynote speaker Elizabeth Castelli, the theme was inspired by audio of earlier feminist conferences, and how the process of digitization led to larger questions of use and ownership. As the discussion progressed, it became clear that reaching a final answer to any of these questions cannot and should not be the goal. Rather, archives should be spaces where continuous discussion is encouraged and continuous access fostered.

The archive has long been a site of contention. Once perceived as purely objective towards history, there has been a recent push to consider archives through a post-modernist lense—as fluid spaces of ongoing debate and discussion, rather than static sites of fixed history and narrative. As Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook state in Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory, “…by treating records and archives as contested sites of power, we can bring new sensibilities to understanding records and archives as dynamic technologies of rule which actually create the histories and social realities they ostensibly describe” (Schwartz, Cook, 7).

Despite differences in profession, this emphasis on the archive as a device with which to create history was shared by all three panel speakers. Moderated by acclaimed writer Saidiya Hartman, the three speakers included La Vaughn Belle, a multi-medium visual artist, Justin Leroy, a professor and historian, and Cameron Rowland, a visual artist. Notably, the panel featured no archivists, which I found to be compelling. How could the discussion be shaped by people who had a more dynamic relationship with the archive and don’t interact with it on a daily basis? What kind of direction could it go in?

The panel began with Justin, who discussed the relationship of the Black slave to the archive, and the collective cultural assumption that history moves in one direction. Similar to feminist scholarship, the slave’s relationship with the archive is historically one based on absence and the assumption that the voice of the slave carries no significance. He gave the example of a letter that philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote stating that Africa “is no historical part of the world.” Moving forward from this flawed ideology, Justin explained, the popular notion has been that the recovery of history is necessary to achieve social justice. But, Justin questioned, what is the benefit of being “unfit” for history? What new narratives are uncovered from the vantage point of being outside history?

Approaching the question as a historian rather than an archivist, Justin described the narratives of free slaves as shaped by perpetual subjugation by history. In spite of the technical abolition of slavery, Blacks would continue to be beholden to the oppressive structures of capitalism that underpin American progress. Capitalism and American history run in parallel to one another, with racialized conceptions of monetary value remaining constant. If things exist beyond the simple binary of life and death, it contorts our idea of time as linear. But, as Justin concluded, if we allow other trajectories of history to permeate the cultural understanding, we might be able to “find the language for more aspirational freedom.”

Justin’s idea of taking a more aspirational approach to history, and an eye towards the future as well as the past strongly echoed the writing of Roy Rosenzweig’s Scarcity of Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era, which urged historians to “shift at least some of their attention from the past to the present and future and reclaim the professional vision that was more prevalent a century ago” (Rosenzweig, 739). It is a disservice to narrow the vision of history into one linear path.

The next speaker, Cameron, shared this idea of the archive and what it represents as being intrinsically limited in Black narratives. His main example was the concept of reparations and how its discourse opposes the historical constructions of time and monetary value. In his art, Cameron uses historical documents to oppose capitalism. He presented one of his most recent works, “Burden of Proof,” which uses maps of 8060 Maxie Road, a property repossessed by former slaves during Reconstruction. The property was purchased in 2018 by a non-profit in order to implement a restrictive covenant so that the land cannot be used again. The land is valued at $0 and cannot be used based on the stipulations of the covenant. How then, Cameron asked, can this force us to rethink the notion of reparations as value-based and relegated to property? The lack of historical documents relating to this property show us the value in a limited archive, Cameron argued. How can we look beyond history to rethink the role of capitalism in reparations?

Scarcity in the archive and the narrative freedom it allows for were the central interests of artist La Vaughn Belle, the next speaker. Primarily focused on the Danish colonization of the Virgin Islands, La Vaughn described the Virgin Islands’ archives as splintered, due to acquisition by the Danish government. Because of this archival scarcity, La Vaughn argued, the memory of the islands had to be reproduced in alternative ways, which she explores in her work. For example, Chaney are fragments of Crucian pottery that often wash up after storms. La Vaughn collected these fragments and used them to create “process paintings,” to fill in the gaps. The lack of completion in the archive allowed her to utilize her imagination, which presents a necessary challenge to colonialism. In order for the archive to be a tool of resistance and fluidity, some scarcity is essential, she argued.

During their discussion with one another, all speakers challenged the idea of the archive as a place of necessary abundance. Justin presented the idea of “reading practice,” a method he uses in teaching, which emphasizes not what is present or absent in research, but what you do with what you find. La Vaughn emphasized the overlap between history and visual arts, and the need to make metaphors in both fields. Cameron added that the idea of accumulation in history is a byproduct of capitalism that should be reconsidered.  The archive, all agreed, should be a space where one can create their own metaphors for the past and future.

In the end, I appreciated that no archivists were included. I felt that by allowing for more creative perspectives, those with a vague understanding of archives could be exposed to a broader view of their purpose. As I left the panel though, I quite honestly felt like I had my work cut out for me. What authority do I have to fill in the blanks of history? As an archivist, do I have the right to incorporate creativity into my work? But as I considered it more, I thought of how archives can never truly be complete. We can never truly possess every artifact of history; why even try? As the speakers showed, archives must have an element of creativity to challenge dominant narratives. Perhaps the point of archives shouldn’t be to merely present history as it was, but to provide an idea of a better future.

By Sarah Goldfarb, Info 601, Professor Chris Alen Sula

  1. Schwartz, Joan M. and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2 (2002): 1-19.
  2. Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity of Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” Oxford University Press (2003): 735-762

Preserving Counter-Narratives and The Racial Imaginary Institute

The Racial Imaginary Institute speaking at the Schomburg Center
The Racial Imaginary Institute speaking at the Schomburg Center

The lights dim in the Langston Hughes Auditorium within the Schomburg Center located on Malcolm X Boulevard. A short video entitled, “What is the Schomburg Center?” begins to roll and the voice of Shola Lynch, curator of the center’s Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, booms, “it is the place where we come to see who we are. Not just some body’s reflection of who we are.” This is the true theme of center as well as of the evening. We are here to celebrate the launch of The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII) website, a new type of art archive founded by poet and MacArthur fellow Claudia Rankine. Rankine and Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks are moderating a discussion between two artists featured in the archive, Alexandra Bell and Hank Willis Thomas. The website is one of the first steps for the institute, which will collaborate with organizations, collectives and spaces to confront the concept of race through, the activation of interdisciplinary work and a democratized exploration” (The Racial Imaginary Institute).

The first web issue focuses on “constructions, deconstructions, and visualizations of/around whiteness, white identity, white rage/fragility/violence, and white dominant structures” (The Racial Imaginary Institute). Whiteness as the first theme was ­­­­­deliberate, investigating white dominance and “America’s commitment to whiteness” says Rankine, is the first step in dismantling racism and the concept of race. The website will collect submissions throughout the year and is capable of hosting all types of media. This will allow for a variety of voices to be heard across artistic disciplines to show different manifestations of lived experience within the dominant structures of whiteness.

'Tulsa Man' by Alexandra Bell
‘Tulsa Man’ by Alexandra Bell

“I don’t think I will ever live in a post-racial society,” says Alexandra Bell. A graduate of Columbia’s Journalism school Bell professes that it mostly, “made [her] a very snobby reader.” She critiques the latent racism within journalism through creating counter-narratives by editing articles from The New York Times, enlarging them tenfold and wheat pasting them in public spaces throughout New York City, predominantly Brooklyn. Her most well-known work is “A Teenager with Promise” a commentary of the inept coverage by the paper over Michael Brown’s murder. Her pieces are diptychs with one panel featuring a redacted and edited copy of the original article noting the language choices that sustain the dominant white narrative; the second panel is her visual representation of the more accurate counter-narrative.

'Absolut Power' by Hank Willis Thomas
‘Absolut Power’ by Hank Willis Thomas

“Race is the most successful advertising campaign of all time,” Hank Willis Thomas tells the audience. Thomas is a conceptual artist whose body of work intersects on ideas of identity, commodity, and pop culture. He believes that “black identity” is fabricated, co-opted and capitalized upon by whiteness. Most known for his series B®anded consisting of manipulated photographs to explore themes of the black body as a commodity from the time of slavery to the present day. One of his most striking pieces is Absolut Power, a play on the Absolut vodka ad campaigns, filling the iconic bottle’s silhouette with the diagram of the Brooke’s slave ship.

“Through archives, the past is controlled[,]” Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook remind us, “[c]ertain stories are privileged and others marginalized” (1). The institution of the archive “represents enormous power over memory and identity, over the fundamental ways in which society seeks evidence of what its core values are and have been, where it has come from, and where it is going” (Schwartz and Cook 1). These are the exact issues the institute sets out to tackle. Racism is a social construct, it is built upon privilege and power that is either overt or subconcious. When a police officer shoots a black man his defense most often that he was afraid. But afraid of what? White dominance has controlled the narrative surrounding black bodies since we kidnapped them from their homes and enslaved them here on our soil. We have allowed this narrative to continue unchecked actively and passively in all corners of society. In archives specifically, it can be seen in the collection process. It is not uncommon to search records under the “Black History” heading only to find files filled with solely caricature advertising, gruesome accounts of lynching, or similar narratives that place people of color as the victimized other. These narrow collections focus on “Black History” from a controlled white perspective.

As a writer and scholar of African history and diaspora, Arturo Schomburg, for whom the center is dedicated, came up against many who were quick to say that people of color had no history. He went on to amass the largest collection of artifacts and records of black history to preserve the history and culture which society deemed illegitimate. He strove to preserve the range of black experiences, from excellence to exploitation, rather than focusing on the suffering and stereotypes. That to him was not African history it was the history of white dominance and oppression. Because of his legacy ­­­­we have the records that are the literal actual narrative of black experience and not just what white archivist and society have deemed the acceptable history.

The Racial Imaginary Institute seeks to expound upon the ideas of Shomburg by collecting and creating a “deep memory archive” (Brooks) of artistic manifestations of lived experience. It will serve to capture not just our history past, but also our history current. This is a pointed effort to start the conversation now rather than wait for our future historians to interpret the evidence. This is a new way of collecting and disseminating information through active community participation that will circumvent the power still held in the institution of the archive.

The Racial Imaginary Institute
The Racial Imaginary Institute

Works Referenced:“About the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.”, New York Public Library ,

Charlton, Lauretta. “Claudia Rankine’s Home for the Racial Imaginary.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017,

Félix, Doreen St. “The.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 31 July 2017,

“HANK WILLIS THOMAS, BRANDED.” Jack Shainman Gallery, Jack Shainman Gallery, Artist page.

Rankine, Claudia, Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks, Alexandra Bell, and Hank Willis Thomas. “Artist and the Archive: Deconstructing Racial Imagination at the Schomburg” New York Public Library Schomburg Center. 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York. 26 Sept. 2017. Artist Panel Discussion.

Schwartz, Joan M, and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science : International Journal on Recorded Information. (2002). Print.

“The Racial Imaginary Institute.” The Racial Imaginary Institute, The Racial Imaginary Institute,


Class, Access and Activism in Chicago Public School Libraries

Protest against Chicago school closings, via In These Times
Protest against Chicago school closings, via In These Times


In spring 2013, the Chicago Public School system attracted national attention for the unprecedented closing of 54 schools and layoffs of more than 2,100 employees. The closings confirmed the fears that motivated the Chicago Teachers Union’s historic fall 2012 strike, in which tens of thousands of teachers walked out of the job for nearly two weeks. Over a year later, Chicago’s public school students are facing another challenge: the continuing decline of library resources and professional library staff in the schools. While the dismantling of professionally staffed school libraries pose serious labor concerns for Chicago’s certified teacher-librarians, it also exacerbates information inequality in a school district that primarily serves minority and low-income students.

Over the past two school years, the number of librarians in Chicago’s public schools has been cut nearly in half, from 454 in the 2012-13 school year budget to just 254 this year. Only 38 percent of the schools welcoming students from the recently-closed schools have a professional librarian, compared with only 55 percent of schools in the district overall. The decrease is not a result of a diminished hiring pool, and it is only an indirect result of the mass layoffs of 2013. Rather, “student-based” rebudgeting has forced principals to make difficult decisions either to dismiss librarians or reassign them to fill vacant classroom teaching positions. Of the schools that have standalone libraries, many are now staffed either by part-time clerks or parent volunteers.

This reorganization of library labor within the schools points to the pernicious effects of austerity management and neoliberal policy on public education. As Nauratil writes in The Alienated Librarian, “The bottom-line measure of success in the private sector is profit. When this model is superimposed on a traditionally nonprofit organization, that organization’s own goals, structure, and character are jeopardized,” (Nauratil 75). How can school librarians fulfill their professional commitment to information democracy and equal access when their jobs are jeopardized by a city administration more committed to the interests of private corporations than the human rights of its most underserved (student) populations?[1]

Statistics published by Chicago Teachers’ Union on librarian employment in public vs. private schools demonstrate the ways in which access to library education is undeniably a class issue. CPS schools, which serve 87% low-income students, lack librarians in nearly 50 percent of schools. 100% of Chicago’s elite private schools have professional librarians. As CTU’s report states:

A school library is integral to every child’s education and shouldn’t be available only to students in wealthy schools… school librarians support information needs and integrate literacy development across the curriculum and across grade development.

Beyond reading skills, librarians promote digital information literacy and facilitate more self-directed learning experiences. Without instructing students in how to evaluate, retrieve, and manipulate information sources, we risk reproducing class inequalities by leaving low-income students under-equipped to navigate and empower themselves within a digital information economy.

In response to criticisms about decreases in school librarians and library access CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett attributed hiring decisions to individual principals, who must decide how to allocate funds for their schools. In addition, Byrd-Bennett promised digitally enhanced libraries in every welcoming school and iPads for all students in grades 3-8. While incorporating new technologies into the classroom seems positive, their value is diminished without specialized library and media instruction. Boasting of new technologies without tackling the fraught pedagogical situation in the schools belies a situation in which school boards award expensive contracts to high-tech corporations rather than hire skilled laborers to address students’ media education needs. Following Peter McDonald’s thesis in “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship,” we must question whether technological advancement masks the intrusion of the “paradigm of corporate hegemony” into the library (McDonald 9). I doubt that iPads for every student substantially address the educational needs of inner city students facing issues such as racial inequality, economic disparity, high crime rates, and police brutality.

Advocacy and Resistance: Learning from La Casita

Community members fight to save La Casita, 2011 (photo by Brett Jelinek, via
Community members fight to save La Casita, 2011 (photo by Brett Jelinek, via

Chicago Teachers’ Union, library advocacy groups, parents, and community members continue to fight to provide students with the library resources that they deserve. Beyond the labor issues in school libraries, these groups have pointed out how the dismantling of the public school system perpetuates structures of class and racial oppression. While the battle may be an uphill one, it is crucial to continue to challenge CPS budget-centered, neoliberal approach to education.

Perhaps the most inspiring challenge to the lack of school libraries came from the parents of Whittier Elementary School in Chicago’s mostly Latino Pilsen neighborhood. As the school had no dedicated library, parents turned a field house on the premises, affectionately termed “La Casita,” into a library and community center. When police threatened to demolish La Casita in September 2011, dozens of Whittier parents – mostly mothers – staged a sit-in for forty-three days and nights, demanding that the building be renovated into a library. The district had other plans: they wanted to remove the school’s special education classroom to make room for a library inside the building. During the sit-in, La Casita continued to serve as a community center, offering a collection of 2,500 books, ESL classes, sewing classes and other resources. When the occupation ended, school officials agreed to re-allocate the demolition funds to renovate the building according to the community members’ plans. However, work was not begun, and on a Friday night in summer 2013, the city sent in a demolition crew to bulldoze the field house. Of the more than 200 protesters (including myself) who gathered that evening, 10 were arrested. CPS has converted the former library into an astro-turf field and basketball courts.

Though community members no longer exchange skills and knowledge at La Casita, the center provides a key alternative model for how libraries can empower underserved communities. Forged out of direct action rather than state standards, La Casita provided materials and participatory experiences that addressed a minority student community whose educational needs were being denied by the state. Moreover, the parents and students who gathered there learned to articulate their needs and desires and forge political identities in a process of class struggle. The movement echoes the radical pedagogy outlined in Paolo Friere’s seminal “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Learning from La Casita, I would encourage teacher-librarians to partner with parents and activist groups, offering their skills as informational specialists to help communities challenge educational inequalities in their own voices, in their own terms. While school and public libraries are critical for empowering people with information, we can’t reach this ideal through one institution. Along with open access media, self-directed community centers can allow people to activate knowledge to transform their everyday lives.

[1] At the time of the budget cuts, mayor Rahm Emanuel also approved the expenditure of $195 million of public money on a new stadium for DePaul University, attracting wide criticism. The incident builds on a track record of supporting private-sector growth, particularly in the areas of tourism and entertainment.

Additional References:

McDonald, Peter. “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship: The Fight for the Soul of the Profession in the New Millennium.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian. Ed. Alison M. Lewis. Duluth, MN: Library Juice, 2008. 9-24. Print.

Nauratil, Marcia J. The Alienated Librarian. New York: Greenwood, 1989.