Creating an algorithm to capture racism, sexism, and classism

by Blanche Bong Cook
Wayne State University Law School

The church occasioned one of my first conscious experiences with inequality and injustice—Sunday school to be exact.

I was nine years old and bedecked in black high platform shoes and a bright pink polyester suit. It was the ‘70s, a moment in fashion history never to be revisited. My Sunday school teacher, a spiritually angelic woman, was explaining the demise of the “Woman Caught in Adultery.”

According to the story, the leaders of law and religion wanted to stone the woman to death for having intercourse with a man that was not her husband. Although she was subject to the death penalty, he was not exposed to any punishment.

The lopsided sanction at issue in the parable plagued my young mind. Little did I know, I would spend my legal career, as a federal sex trafficking prosecutor and as a legal scholar, trying to vindicate the Woman Caught in Adultery.

Punishing the woman for a crime that both the woman and a man committed stood outside the political atmosphere or Zeitgeist of the moment, specifically the Black Power and Feminist movements. The unevenness of treatment, rampant inequality, and inability to detect criminality in the body of the “oppressor,” and only the “oppressed,” ignited both movements.

It was the ‘70s, after all. Although the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Feminist movements expanded during my youth, none fully embraced the work of the other or an intersectional agenda—possibly explaining the current political moment. Perhaps, the current political climate reflects a failure of the popular political movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s to embrace intersectionality, an understanding that racism, sexism, and classism not only overlap, but that each supports and sustains the work of the other.
Had the feminist movement, for example, fully embraced intersectionality, might it have acknowledged that the killing of Trayvon Martin could explain the rise of President Donald Trump? Or, that the demonization of black men as the prototype for criminality immunizes the treachery of majority men from detection? If, for example, multiple women had accused President Barack Obama of sexual assault and that he had conspired with a foreign country to steal the presidential election, can there be any doubt that we would be embroiled in impeachment proceedings this minute?

When the TED organization (the “Teddies”) contacted me to do a TED Talk, I initially thought it was a joke. When I asked them how they found me, they said that Wayne State University Law School had publicized its most recent addition to the law school faculty, a former federal prosecutor specializing in large-scale sex and drug trafficking prosecutions. 

I knew the Teddies were looking for a talk about sex trafficking. Like for example, how we are all complicit in creating a sex trafficking culture, one that encourages the sexual objectification of vulnerability or one that actively creates vulnerability for purposes of sexual exploitation. When I told the Teddies that I wanted to build an algorithm to capture white

heteropatriarchal power or racism, sexism, and classism, using the parable of the Woman Caught in Adultery, they were equally as spellbound as they were worried. 

Wouldn’t it be phenomenal to reduce racism, sexism, and classism down to their basic elements such that we could detect and predict their moves, maneuvers, and operations? Arguably, women, persons of color, and the poor have always done this. Indeed, survival is predicated on these skills, but wouldn’t it be incredible if we did this in a more formalized way, not just to shame the oppressor, but to liberate the oppressed through acknowledgement, predictability, and strategy? 

At the outset of my TED Talk, I note that Dmitri Mendeleev (creator of the Periodic Table) and I share the same birthday and that we both built algorithms. He built an algorithm to capture all matter and reduced it down to its most basic elements in order to make those elements known and useful to us. He so understood basic molecular structure that he could predict substances that had yet to be discovered at the time he created the Periodic Table.

I build algorithms to capture the basic moves, maneuvers, and operations of power as it is raced, classed, sexed, and gendered. I reduce sexism, racism, and classism down to their most basic constitutive parts in order to make those things knowable for purposes of detection, strategy, and eradication. 

The Woman Caught in Adultery not only encapsulates the basic ways in which racism, classism, and sexism operate, but it also holds possible keys to liberation. When the rabbi says, “Let those of you without sin cast the first stone,” he sets in motion the cycle of liberation, a calling to all of us: whereby, we rigorously examine our thoughts and actions with a view toward a redistribution of power that gets us closer to ideals of equality and full human flourishing. The rabbi takes the gaze of criminality off the bodies of our Trayvon Martins and shines it on our thinly disguised leaders, problematizing the history of their conduct in a way that renders their attempts to destroy and sexually assault transparent, unconscionable, and condemnable.

My TED Talk challenges us to apprehend intersectionality, a lesson we might have missed in our popular political movements, but may now explain our current political climate and the possibility for change.

Specifically, we learn from the parable that there is nothing new about state violence and police power playing and performing on vulnerable bodies. However, we all have  within us the power to refrain from problematizing and pathologizing vulnerable bodies and to examine critically whether our thoughts and actions advance the cause of full human flourishing. If they do not, at a bare minimum, we can refrain from taking adverse action – a lesson well worth revisiting in a political moment in desperate need of liberation and critical reflection.

Blanche Bong Cook, a former law clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith and currently an assistant professor of law at Wayne State University Law School, presented a TED Talk on November 2, 2016, titled “CAUGHT: Calculating the Moves of Power in Our Midst.”  An alumna of the University of Michigan Law School, Cook can be reached at blanche.cook@ Her TED Talk can be seen at https://www.

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