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An Empirical Analysis of Racial Categories in the Algorithmic Fairness Literature

Amina A. Abdu, Irene V. Pasquetto, Abigail Z. Jacobs

Recent work in algorithmic fairness has highlighted the challenge of defining racial categories for the purposes of anti-discrimination. These challenges are not new but have previously fallen to the state, which enacts race through government statistics, policies, and evidentiary standards in anti-discrimination law. Drawing on the history of state race-making, we examine how longstanding questions about the nature of race and discrimination appear within the algorithmic fairness literature. Through a content analysis of 60 papers published at FAccT between 2018 and 2020, we analyze how race is conceptualized and formalized in algorithmic fairness frameworks. We note that differing notions of race are adopted inconsistently, at times even within a single analysis. We also explore the institutional influences and values associated with these choices. While we find that categories used in algorithmic fairness work often echo legal frameworks, we demonstrate that values from academic computer science play an equally important role in the construction of racial categories. Finally, we examine the reasoning behind different operationalizations of race, finding that few papers explicitly describe their choices and even fewer justify them. We argue that the construction of racial categories is a value-laden process with significant social and political consequences for the project of algorithmic fairness. The widespread lack of justification around the operationalization of race reflects institutional norms that allow these political decisions to remain obscured within the backstage of knowledge production.

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