Why Microsoft’s So-Called ‘Avoid Ghetto’ App Is Really American

Microsoft's controversial new mapping technology would direct users away from supposedly violent neighborhoods. But it is based on faulty assumptions about violent crime that are a rooted in a long history of racist ideas about black communities.

By Jamilah King Jan 31, 2012

Microsoft has recently been at the center of a whirlwind of controversy over a new app that critics allege is downright racist. On January 3, the company was granted a patent for technology related to its "Pedestrian Route Production" application, a tool that that the company says would navigate the user "safely through neighborhoods with violent crime statistics below a certain threshold."

While the patent makes no explicit references to race, the project has been unofficially dubbed the "Avoid Ghetto App" by various online news sites. Microsoft, for its part, has been silent throughout the ordeal, and declined to comment on the matter to Colorlines.com. But intentions aside, the fact that the app was so quickly racialized begs the larger question of how and why technology perpetuates systemic racism, and why consumers should care.

"Almost the moment this patent got granted, [this app] got racialized so that ‘violent crime’ became ‘mugging’, which became ‘black and Latino people’, which became ‘ghetto,’ " says Sarah Chinn, a professor of English at the City University of New York and author of the book "Technology and the Logic of American Racism." Chinn has been among Microsoft’s most vocal critics.

Microsoft’s app has stirred so much discussion, Chinn says, because the United States is a "very racist country. When you say the words ‘violent crime’, in the public imagination that turns into ‘dangerous urban black man or Latino man.’ "

Others disagree. Industry analyst Rob Enderline told NPR last week that Microsoft’s project is just a matter of technology trying to make life easier for users. "It’s part of an overall effort to make navigation systems more intelligent so they keep you out of danger, whether you’re driving or you’re on foot," Enderle told NPR.

Yet even if that’s the case, it’s based on the widely held misconception that violent crime is more likely to hit random strangers. In fact, the opposite is true. The vast majority of violent crime happens to people who know each other. For instance, 75 percent of rapes are committed by someone the survivor already knows, according to statistics provided by San Francisco Women Against Rape. The majority of murders are committed by members of ones own racial group. Missouri has the nation’s highest black homicide rate, and when the Violent Prevention Center looked at statistics from 2009, it found that–whenever the relationship could be identified–76 percent of black murder victims were killed by someone they knew.

In Washington, D.C. and New York City, robberies are on the decline.

Huffington Post’s Black Voices points out that the FBI’s 2010 crime report revealed that whites were arrested more often for violent crimes that year than any other race.

But, according to Chinn, the myth that black men in particular are more likely to perpetrate violent crime against white strangers resonates so strongly because it’s become an indelible part of America’s racial identity.

"This is a myth that’s been with us since the days of Reconstruction," Chinn told Colorlines.com, calling the period an era of "terrorism against black people." Chinn noted that whites unconsciously knew that they were the perpetrators of violence against black people, particularly sexual violence against black women. Thus the myth of dangerous black men evolved as way to justify racist violence against black communities.

The logic, Chinn says, was "you’re violent so we have to criminalize you, we have to put you in jail, we have to stop-and-frisk you, and we have to move out of your neighborhoods."

Microsoft’s new technology is just the latest in a series of scientific parallels with the past. 

The problem isn’t the technology itself, but what people imagine the technology will do. So while DNA and finger printing may on the surface be seemingly race-neutral technologies that only offer specific information about someone’s body, they’re quickly used to reinforce people’s preconceived ideas about race. "Once they enter the public discourse in the United States it’s all about how can we identify [people of color] and prove that they are not as good as white people, or prove that segregation is justified," says Chinn.

Chinn does not expect that Microsoft will market the app as it is now, but will fold it into its next generation of mapping technology. "It’s really about why we should be afraid of certain neighborhoods and certain kinds of people. People take these technologies and they use them to ‘prove’ things that they actually already believe about people of various racialized groups."