I’m thrilled to share that Automating Inequality was honored today, along with Rachel Devlin’s A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools and Vanessa Siddle Walker’s The Lost Education of Horace Tate, as a winner of the Lillian Smith Book Award for 2019.
The award is conferred by the Southern Regional Council and the University of Georgia Libraries. In their words, it “honor[s] those authors who, through their outstanding writing about the American South, carry on [Lillian] Smith’s legacy of elucidating the condition of racial and social inequity and proposing a vision of justice and human understanding.”
The award is named for the author of the controversial novel, Strange Fruit (1944). Lillian Smith, the University of Georgia Library writes, “was the most liberal and outspoken of white, mid-twentieth century Southern writers on issues of social and racial injustice. When other Southern liberals were charting a cautious course on racial change, Smith boldly and persistently called for an end to segregation. For such boldness, she was often scorned by more moderate southerners, threatened by arsonists, and denied the critical attention she deserved as a writer. Yet she continued to write and speak for improved human relations and social justice throughout her life.”
Sadly, I could not attend the awards ceremony, held at the Georgia Center for the Book during the wonderful Decatur Book Festival. But the awards committee graciously allowed me to write comments to be delivered despite my absence. Here is what I wrote:
I am so grateful that the Lillian Smith Book Awards committee chose this year to recognize Automating Inequality, along with the extraordinary books A Girl Stands at the Door and The Lost Education of Horace Tate. It is especially meaningful because, as a southerner transplanted at an early age to the Northeast, whose accent only re-emerges when I drink too much whiskey, it honors my work within the long tradition of voices of conscience writing from and about the American South.
To have your name entered into a register with such luminous minds as Alex Haley, John Gaventa, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Marian Wright Edelman, Barbara Ransby, and Danielle McGuire is to be at once deeply touched by the privilege and profoundly terrified by challenge of living up to their example. The work of these authors inspires us to consider: How do we tell the truths of this world-on-fire with frankness, grace, and power?
How do we describe, as Lillian Smith herself asked in Killers of the Dream, “trouble…so big that people turn away from its size, [their] imaginations closed tight against the hurt of others”? And how do we do it all while grounding our readers in the radical possibility of hope, reconciliation, and healing?
In Automating Inequality, I describe new digital tools emerging in social services across the United States: automated eligibility systems, matching algorithms, and statistical models that rationalize caregiving in an era of enforced austerity. These systems take scarcity for granted, shackling our imagination to the twisted, constraining shape of current politics. They perform digital triage – facilitating the inhuman choice of who among us deserves the basic necessities for human life – food, shelter, family integrity – and who we will allow to starve, go homeless, or lose their child to the state.
Simply, they tell us that we should accept the world as it is and adjust our expectations. They try to tell us that things aren’t ever going to get better. But that is an insidious lie.
At their worst, these systems act as empathy overrides, allowing us to turn away from the most pressing problem of our age: the life- and soul-threatening legacy of institutional racism, classism, and sexism in America. They allow us to ignore our moral responsibility by replacing the messiness of human relationships with the predictable charms of systems engineering.
But these digital systems are actually narrative tools in denial: machines for making sense of the world and for making political decisions. Datasets, predictive models, artificial intelligence: though they present themselves as objective and neutral representations of truth, they are simply stories pretending they’re not stories. That’s what makes them so dangerous. They deny that they have a narrative point of view, that they are shaped by their context and history. They deny that they embody normative assumptions about the world, about who we should and can be.
“It is easier,” Smith wrote, “to arouse hatred of others than love for one’s own freedom and future.” Now is not the time for too-simple stories. The longing for freedom and justice, the will to collectively build a better future, requires clear vision and courageous truth-telling. Books can be bridges to span brokenness, elixirs to revive dead dreams, tiny hands that open the closed places in our minds and hearts where we’ve turned away from recognizing injustice for fear of the change the realization will require.
It is my honor and privilege to aspire to truly belong on this historic list. And it is with deep gratitude that I thank you all.
Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream (1949).
See a list of past winners of the Lillian Smith Book Award (an intimidating bunch!) here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lillian_Smith_Book_Award
Learn more about Lillian Smith here: https://lilliansmithdoc.com/lilliansmith
August 31, 2019