Where race puts you on death row

I happened to be in London last week on the day the Stephen Lawrence report was released. From personal experience, I know the Met is riddled with racism; I've sat in pubs listening to cops prattle on about "nig-nogs" and once talked to a black policeman forced to abandon his career because of the way his colleagues treated him. Shocking though all this and the Lawrence tragedy is, however, I couldn't help coming to an unavoidable conclusion: that most British policemen are pussycats compared to their US counterparts.

The longer I live here, in fact, the more I realise how deeply embedded racism is. Slavery made it such an intrinsic part of American life that today it simply does not occur to most whites - including nice, middle-class, "liberal", touchy-feely ones - that the ghost of Jim Crow still stalks their country and that blacks often receive hopelessly short shrift from police and courts. If you're black and the victim of a crime, the ensuing "investigation" is likely to be even more sloppy and racist than the Lawrence one; if you are a black suspect, then the chances of a scrupulous investigation are even lower.

In 1982, for example, a young black couple - Marilyn Green, 19, and Jerry Hillard, 18 - were shot dead in a park in Chicago's south side. By the following day the police had decided who did it: a 27-year-old black man with a criminal record named Tony Porter. Detectives duly rustled up a (black) "witness" who swore that he had seen Porter fire the fatal shots. And that was just about it. No serious defence was offered. Porter had an IQ of 51 but that did not stop him being sentenced to death, and from 1983 he sat on death row, awaiting the electric chair and then the "nicer" alternative of lethal injection. He was due to die on 25 September last year and was just 48 hours from death when he was given a temporary reprieve. Had a fluke not just occurred, he would very likely be dead by now.

What happened was that an enterprising lawyer - working not for the money but because he cared - phoned a journalism teacher named David Protess, who teaches at Northwestern University in the affluent Chicago suburbs. Protess is among the 30 per cent of Americans who oppose the death penalty and sometimes sets his students projects to investigate death penalty cases. When Porter was given his short procedural reprieve, Protess put four budding Woodward/Bernsteins on the case, all white kids from suburbia who'd hardly ever even been to the south side.

They moved swiftly. They tracked down potential witnesses the police hadn't even bothered to look for. They found the mother of the murdered woman, who told them she had last seen the victims in the company of another man. They pored over court records. They visited the scene of the murder and re-enacted it. The police "witness" had claimed that, at night, he could recognise Porter's face at 500 feet. Even in broad daylight, the students found they could not make out each other's faces from that distance - and from that moment, they were convinced of Porter's innocence. The gunman was left-handed, Porter right-handed. The students traced the "witness" who then immediately retracted his statement, telling them he had been "threatened, harassed and intimidated" by Chicago police into fingering Porter.

Then, during the Christmas holidays, one of the young women on the student team went home to Milwaukee, where - they had discovered - the man whom Green's mother had spotted now lived. At this point, Protess brought in an 18-stone private detective and former policeman to protect his students in case it became necessary. But they brought out a video camera, and within minutes the middle-aged man, Alstory Simon, was confessing: "Before I knew anything I started shooting," he told them. "I must have close to busted off about six rounds."

Thus four enthusiastic students had done what Chicago's finest and Porter's publicly funded lawyers had failed to do: they had not only proved Porter innocent but had also found the real murderer. Porter, with the understatement of the child that mentally he is, said: "It's like a heavy load's been lifted. I just thank God that everything came out all right." Last month he literally leapt into the arms of Protess when released from prison. Simon has now been charged.

What is frightening is that Porter is the tenth person to be released from death row like this in Illinois alone in the past two decades. Nationally, no fewer than 75 people have been similarly set free since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. A pathetic police "investigation" of a crime with black victims and suspects, combined with ineffectual lawyers, all but sealed Porter's fate. Some states pay publicly appointed lawyers only $20-40 an hour to defend murder suspects, with a ceiling of $2,000, a sum for which the kind of lawyers who defended O J Simpson would barely pick up the phone. Yet four-fifths of people charged with murder here are indigent and dependent on this system.

I fear it is a system still linked, subconsciously at least, to the lynching of black men. In Jimmy Carter's state of Georgia, to take one example, more than 60 per cent of murder victims since 1972 have been black; but of the 22 executed in that period, 20 were charged with the murders of whites. Blacks represent 36 per cent of the 3,549 people now on death row - the US is one of the world's top five executing nations alongside Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and China - though blacks comprise only 12 per cent of the population. Heaven knows how many, like Tony Porter, are innocent. British policemen may not be perfect, but at least we don't still put people to death as a result of their flawed "investigations".

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.
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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.