Microsoft’s “Avoid Ghetto” App: Racism Built into Technology

Microsoft has developed and filed a patent for a new “Avoid Ghetto” GPS app. The app connects to your smartphone (or dashboard GPS) and let’s you know when you’re getting close to a neighborhood with high rates of (street) crime.

A story about this dreadful new technology appeared in this piece by Ross Kenneth Urken, who talked to a CUNY colleague of mine, Sarah E. Chinn, author of Technology and the Logic of American Racism. Chinn observes:

“It’s pretty appalling. Of course, an application like this defines crime pretty narrowly, since all crimes happen in all kinds of neighborhoods. I can’t imagine that there aren’t perpetrators of domestic violence, petty and insignificant drug possession, fraud, theft, and rape in every area.”

Of course, Sarah’s absolutely right about this. (Strangely, The Root mentions her book, uses the same quote, but totally mangles attribution.)

Here’s the way this app is supposed to work, according to the white-fearful-of-crime-imagination (again from Urken):

On the other hand, consider how this app could potentially help wayward drivers in some cities. In Detroit, for example, the city has a central downtown from General Motors headquarters up Woodward Avenue to Ford Field and Comerica Park where comparatively little crime happens. But just a few blocks outside that area, and a driver can find himself amidst streets of abandoned buildings and street-gang territory.

Although this is speculation, I’m sure this is just what the app developers had envisioned when they created this bit of software.  It’s all very Bonfire of the Vanities, really.  Why if Sherman McCoy had this app, he’d have never gotten into all that trouble in the Bronx. But that’s just it, the app doesn’t track the kind of crimes that are really damaging to society as a whole, say, like bank fraud or subprime mortgage scams by “Masters of the Universe” like McCoy.  No, in this app, crime only happens one way: between dangerous street thugs (read: black and brown people) and drivers (read: white people).

This Way
(Creative Commons License photo credit: dblstripe )

Urken goes on to downplay the racial implications of the “Avoid Ghetto” app, by turning to Roger C. Lanctot, a senior analyst at someplace called “Strategy Analytics,” who views the “Avoid Ghetto” app as potentially useful.  Lanctot asserts that “drivers” should have a right to know when they are passing “high-risk” areas.  Here’s what Lanctot had to say:

“We’ve all had that experience when you take the wrong exit and go, ‘Oh shoot,’ because you end up in a neighborhood you shouldn’t be in. Should you look down at the GPS and have a red flag with an exclamation point, ‘Get out!’? I hate to say it because of the racial implication element, but what father wouldn’t want such a capability for their daughter. I’ve seen plenty of dads having their daughters call them every half-hour: ‘Where are you?’ ‘Where are you?’ They would have more piece of mind if they knew their daughters had an app to avoid driving through bad areas.” [emphasis added]

This quote is an interesting rupture in the usually ‘colorblind’ discussions about technology, yet the element of race is so clear, Lanctot wants to distance himself from the implications of what he’s saying.  It some ways it’s also a revealing moment about the white fear of crime (part of the white racial frame) and the construction of so-called ‘bad’ neighborhoods as always black or Latino. The reality is that “high risk” neighborhoods are most dangerous to those who are living in them (that is, predominantly black and brown people), not the white people who are driving through them.


  1. mbfromnm

    This is not a surprise in any way. I encounter this fear among my fellow whites all the time. A few years ago, I went to visit my hometown with my brother and sister. We had not been back together since the mid-sixties when our family moved away. Every single white person we met warned us not to go to the Southside to see the apartment house where we had first lived. The area was now predominantly black. We visited the city park near the apartment which was filled with 95% black residents. There was not even the slightest hint of negative energy coming at us from anyone at the park or in that neighborhood. Yet, every white person we met spoke about how dangerous the southside was.

    What is ironic is that my time as a teenager was spent avoiding white hoods and a particular white gang. I had several fights with white guys who jumped me. Yet, this widespread violence was almost invisible. No adults spoke about it. No one connected it with white people or moral deficiency.

    As a consultant who worked across the country for 25 years I found myself in taxis regularly. I would say that in 25 -30% of the time that I had a white taxi driver, they would, out of the blue, start telling me how blacks or Puerto Ricans had ruined the city. This happened in the north, west, east, south, and mid-west.

    I repeatedly saw white folks get on the elevator with me and a black colleague and immediately move as far away from my colleague as possible, even though he or she had on a suit and carried a briefcase.

    I have been in many all-black areas of various cities. I have never been accosted. After all, professional crooks know better than to mess with a white victim – doing so means the area will be blanketed by cops and that will make it so much harder to get away with crime. Telling this to whites has no impact on their fear. As much as we want to think we have no prejudice this deep-seated feeling of fear proves us so very wrong.

    • profafropuff

      it’s actually not surprise that app is being marketed–racial fear (code: fear of black people) has been used to drive policy, et al. for decades. what i would like to see, is if the app will tell me when i’m driving into “neo-nazi land” when i’m on the pa turnpike… methinks, no.

  2. Joe

    I wonder why they have not come up with an app that shows black and brown drivers where they should not go because of police harassment, racial profiling, and other overt racial discrimination. Oh, it might tell Latinos not to drive in much of Arizona and Alabama, and a few other states?

  3. JustinThyme

    Yes. I think this article has nailed it… one BIG conspiracy by Microsoft to keep the black man down! A few years ago – before GPS, iPhones, Blackberries and Androids, I had an epiphany on this very subject! As I pulled off the freeway in Miami to get gas for my rental car, I noticed the all the run down buildings, the burnt out cars, the broken glass and all the young gentlemen lurking on corners. It was March so I knew it wasn’t halloween, and it was after mardi gras, so I wasn’t sure what the local holiday was that prompted the lads to attire themselves in “fancy dress”. But there they were, all clad in baggy pants, baseball caps tipped sideways, etc.

    At the Amoco station, there were several older gents who “axed” me if they could pump my gas for me and a couple others who simply “axed” me for some change. The last young lad who approached me neither offered to pump the gas for me nor “axed” me for any spare change. His agenda was just a big more direct; he desired my convertible and my money. He was in his twenties, wore the same type of dress as the other lads in the ‘hood, and had the most interesting golden teeth. Next he pressed a pistol into my temple and instructed me to “empty you pockets” (I had about $500 cash)and drove off in my car.

    The police officers who arrived a short time later, one black one hispanic, then the Dade County Sherrif, and eventually the FBI agents who later took my statement, were fairly consistent in their commentary on the neighborhood. The black officer acctually said something to the effect of “I wish they would put a f**king sign on these off-ramps telling people not to get off here. “Don’t worry though, we’ll catch him. These guys do all their crime on 17th street and live on 15th street”. Sure enough, my gentleman jacker was apprehended within a half an hour. I never got my money back.

    The lawmen were also rather perplexed but yet excited to have a witness who was willing to come back to testify. “Usually”, they said “they just shoot. If we get a victim who survives, they never ever want to come back here”. He wound up serving 16 years of a 30 year sentence. Apparently, he had “made a few similar mistakes” previously.

    At the time, I must cofess, I wished there was something on a map, in a travel book, or the road sign of which the officer spoke. Reading this article though, I now recognize that this could have happened in any neighborhood anywhere in Florida or anywhere else in the USA.

    • Joe

      Would you confess the same mapping goal for all those millions of black men who have been manhandled, harassed, or killed by white police officers and vigilantes for many decades, and now, in many areas of the country?


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