Critical Data Studies A Cross-College Collaboration

Glossary: Discriminatory Design

Discriminatory design can manifest itself in many unsuspecting areas. For instance, the intermittent armrests on public benches that are common in urban parks may be little more than an inconvenience for most pedestrians moving through these spaces. However, in the book, Captivating Technology, Ruha Benjamin (2019) finds that the design of these benches discriminates against people who are homeless as it prevents people from laying down. Such design decisions remind homeless people of their lower status in society. Discriminatory design is described by Benjamin (2019) as the “New Jim Code”. The author explains that this automated form of discrimination traces back to historical Jim Crow laws, as they operate in the background and neutral design decisions. Discriminatory design in the age of Big Data often goes unquestioned due to the rhetoric of progress and innovation used by the tech industry. As Benjamin (2019: 12) writes, “Tech designers encode judgments into technical systems but claim that the racist results of their designs are entirely exterior to the encoding process."  Yet, through further examination, one can find that the New Jim Code hearkens back to many of the same motivations and design choices of historical systems of discrimination and oppression.


Benjamin, Ruha. (2019). Captivating Technology. Duke University Press.

Student Editors: Nikita Gerard, Antonio Domínguez Palomar, Jack Harber and Anirudh Sivarajan. We would like to thank additional student editors who would like to remain anonymous for their contributions.