Hate can’t be hacked

Opinion by Jasmine Sun
Nov. 13, 2019, 7:50 p.m.

Another day, another assault.

I’ve gotten used to Stanford bombarding my inbox with bad news. Since the start of 2019, students have been drugged at parties, hit with racial slurs, raped and groped and pushed off a bike. Students have seen nooses hung and have struggled with mental health to the point of suicide — and that’s just what’s been reported. For many marginalized students, campus feels like it is in crisis. Last spring, my heart would be weighed down for days every time we learned of a campus suicide (there were four). But while I try not to dwell on every new incident report anymore — for the sake of my stress levels — I can’t help but be infuriated by the administration’s weak response.

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s “Fall letter to the community” gestured at forthcoming initiatives to address sexual violence and intolerance on campus. Some of these updates came on Nov. 5, when Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole sent out the email, “Our commitment to diversity and inclusion: An educational series against racial hatred.” The program aimed to provide “opportunities for community education about racism” and to “give voice to the diversity on our campus.” She proposed four events: a film showing on Harriet Tubman, a Native American photography project, an art installation featuring African and American history and a five-hour hackathon against racism.

Yes, you heard that right. According to the email, “‘Hacking Hate’ [is] a student-organized hack-a-thon in which participating teams will research and propose innovative ways to address racial hate and violence on and off campus. The offices of the president and provost will provide winning teams with funding and resources to implement their proposals.” 

Themed hackathons originated and remain popular in the software development community; at traditional hackathons, teams compete to code marketable products in a short period of time. The format encourages participants to test out unconventional ideas, meet others with shared interests, and build side projects to pad resumes and job interviews — all in the course of a weekend or less. Hackathons are especially accessible for newbie programmers because they’re social, low-commitment and don’t require deep expertise to “hack together” a creative solution. 

But a hackathon is an inappropriate approach to campus hate crimes, and the proposal reveals an astounding ignorance of what students need. Just consider the connotations of the word “hack”: its original meaning was “to cut roughly,” “life hacks” offer playful solutions to first world problems and “political hacks” neglect nuance in favor of partisan shilling. In other words, hacking is about the spirit of shortcuts, choosing novelty over careful analysis. Meanwhile, racism is complex, powerful and multi-pronged. It has been upheld by our institutions, ingrained in individual mindsets, and reproduced through media and commodity markets — and in response, we have seen centuries of anti-racist activism across courtrooms, universities and city streets. Simply put, racism is not a problem that has persisted for lack of brainstorming. 

“Hacking Hate” isn’t the first attempt to combine the hackathon spirit with social good. The Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and Stanford in Government co-host an annual policy hackathon, and civic hackathons across the country have encouraged technologists to utilize open data portals and improve city services. But despite their good intentions, these initiatives often fail to generate long-term change: there’s not enough time for research, most participants lack lived experience or domain expertise, and projects get abandoned once the weekend is over. In many ways, social good hackathons typify Silicon Valley’s saviorism problem: inexperienced innovators parachute into a community they don’t understand to build products that no one needs, claiming a resume line and virtue signaling along the way.

Even if Stanford’s event is designed to avoid these pitfalls, the “hackathon” framing remains problematic, sending an implicit message about who should attend and for what purpose. Because most hackathons promise students competitive adrenaline and a move-fast-and-break-things attitude, most “Hacking Hate” attendees will view this event the same way. These competitive dynamics are incompatible with a thoughtful and empathetic racial dialogue, and arbitrarily selecting a “winning” solution is bound to deepen student divides. And who will be left out? Probably female, Black and Hispanic students, who comprise only 23%, 3% and 5% of college hackathon participants respectively — yet are the voices most crucial to this conversation.

Finally, it’s uniquely troubling that the suggestion comes after months of inaction by University officials. Given how they’ve dragged their feet on implementing activists’ demands — more Counseling and Psychological Services counselors of color, a plaque for Chanel Miller, holding student organizations accountable for hate — they themselves have not lived up to their stated commitment toward bold innovation. Instead, the administration is delaying action by asking students to generate even more ideas, but in a more PR-friendly format than a rally or a sit-in. Not to mention, the same president and provosts who have failed to handle sexual assault fairly will be the overseers of this competition, undoubtedly discouraging students who already feel that their needs have been sidelined by the University. 

A hackathon cannot solve hatred. Llamas won’t fix our mental health crisis. An augmented reality plaque does not give voice to Chanel Miller. And countless apologetic emails are no substitute for institutional change. Until the administration steps up to the urgency of the moment — and no, that doesn’t mean waiting for January — its attempts to hack together institutional trust are doomed to fall apart.

Contact Jasmine Sun at jsun99 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Jasmine Sun '21 is a sociology major from the greater Seattle area. She's fascinated by the future of cities, education and digital media. When not trying and failing to catch up on her Goodreads Reading Challenge, she nurtures her caffeine addiction and hosts a podcast on civic innovation.

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