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Abolitionist frameworks for thinking about how to "do" justice as a scholar?

Contribution to the CSCW 2020 Workshop: Collective Organizing and Social Responsibility

Published onOct 15, 2020
Abolitionist frameworks for thinking about how to "do" justice as a scholar?

A Personal Statement

By Linda Huber

University of Michigan Student School of Information

[email protected]

To situate myself in relationship to the topic of this workshop: I am a 2nd year doctoral student in Information Science trying to build a bridge between racial justice organizing work that I have done in my personal life and my work as a scholar. I am thinking a lot about what actions or avenues are available to me to do justice as a teacher, researcher, and manager of some small material resources.

Part of what brings me to academia is the additional space and scaffolding it creates for radical thinking and practice relative to the corporate world. Nonetheless, there are some glaring difficulties in trying to be “radical” within a professional context and an institutional system that is part and parcel of racial capitalism (a situation not unique to academia of course, and particularly familiar for anyone in the “non-profit industrial complex.”) In particular, it seems that academia is very good at co-opting the terminology and practices of radical activism -- see: e.g., Matthew Johnson’s recent book on “Undermining Racial Justice”, about my very own University. With this in mind, I am incredibly wary that some of the apparent avenues available for a justice-oriented academic - under the varying names of “ethics”, “social responsibility”, “diversity”, etc. - in some cases may actually represent practices of repair and maintenance of an inherently unjust system. To bring in a relevant metaphor: to what extent are some of theses institutionally-approved practices equivalent to giving more funding to police forces for training and bodycams, when what we need is to abolish the police?

Abolitionist theory and practice has been an important frame for me as I consider how to do radical justice in the context of academia. I am asking myself: how can I help to enact liberation within my daily life as an activist and scholar? To answer this question, I feel that I need to develop a better framework for interpreting and locating the actions available to me along the continuum of “repair-work for racial capitalism” vs “non-reformist reforms on the path towards abolition/radical justice”. For example, this kind of critical identification work is being done by those in our field who argue that correcting biases in facial recognition algorithms - e.g. by generating more inclusive corpuses of faces - in fact may be the kind of reformist change that supports the continued use of a technology based on racist and carceral logics (Stark, 2019). Similarly, in conversations about DEI within academia, there seems to be growing recognition that some policies of representation and diversity (without concomitant changes in racial environment or redistribution of material power) may be a way for the fundamentally White supremacist university to perpetuate itself in a new political era. Similar identifications of reformist co-optation are discussed around initiatives and efforts like, e.g., the Center for Humane Technology.

And so: as someone early in my career as an academic, and early in my journey as a white woman pursuing racial justice, I think it is important that I develop a set of political/intellectual tools to think through not only what actions I can take, but to have a sense of the radical vision or “towards what end” these incremental actions are directed. As this group explores how to organize within a professional context in particular, I think it might be helpful to reflect on this passage from abolitionist scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore:

“Unfortunately, many remedies proposed for the all-purpose use of prisons to solve social, political, and economic problems get caught in the logic of the system itself, such that a reform strengthens, rather than loosens, prison’s hold. In a sense, the professionalization of activism has made many committed people so specialized and entrapped by funding streams that they have become effectively deskilled when it comes to thinking and doing what matters most. What are the possibilities of nonreformist reform—of changes that, at the end of the day, unravel rather than widen the net of social control through criminalization?” (p.242, Gilmore, 2007).

How can we “reskill” ourselves in “thinking and doing what matters most”, even if it takes us beyond our professional wheelhouses or funding streams? How can we remain vigilant about the ways that the tech industry and academia may tend to co-opt or reformulate activist visions to avoid radical change? How can we become skilled in identifying non-reformist reforms available to us in the domains of academic hiring and policies, in mentoring and teaching, in designing and building technologies, and in managing funding streams and resources?


Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Duke University Press.

D'Ignazio, C., & Klein, L. F. (2020). Data feminism. MIT Press.

Gilmore, R. W. (2007). Golden gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California (Vol. 21). Univ of California Press.

Johnson, M. (2020). Undermining Racial Justice: How One University Embraced Inclusion and Inequality. Cornell University Press.

Stark, L. (2019). Facial recognition is the plutonium of AI. XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students25(3), 50-55.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (Eds.). (2018). Toward what justice?: Describing diverse dreams of justice in education. Routledge.


As further inspiration, I find this kind of framework from Critical Resistance quite helpful as a very tangible “pocket guide” to reformist reforms vs abolitionist reforms. I wonder what it would look like to develop a reference guide like this for DEI practices within universities, or to algorithmic bias initiatives?

Similarly, this table from Data Feminism (D’Ignazio and Klein, 2019) does some of the work of parsing out reformist reforms versus non-reformist reforms within our discipline:

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