JP Morgan Chase & Co is eliminating terms like “blacklist,” “master” and “slave” from its internal technology materials and code as it seeks to address racism within the company, according to Reuters sources with knowledge of the move.
The terms had appeared in some of the bank’s technology policies, standards and control procedures, as well in the programming code that runs some of its processes, according to one of the sources.
Other companies like Twitter and GitHub adopted similar changes, prompted by the renewed spotlight on racism after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis in May.
However, some Black tech developers have criticised this move as “performative activism” which distracts from the real issues at hand – systemic racism and police brutality. In fact, JP Morgan was embroiled in a racism scandal for its racial profiling in its Arizona, Phoenix branches in the US last year.
Wired reports that Dwayne Slater, a developer in San Jose, is one of more than 3,000 people who signed a petition opposing GitHub dropping the word master. The petition calls such moves “distractions, not solutions,” and says it “creates confusion and unnecessary work for developers.”
Slater, who is Black, wrote in the comments: “To see GitHub use the colour of my skin to make meaningless change is a slap in the face. There are more useful causes to bring to attention, words are not the issue, police brutality in the United States is the issue.”
The phrases “master” and “slave” code or drive are used in some programming languages and computer hardware to describe one part of a device or process that controls another.
“Blacklist” is used to describe items that are automatically denied, like a list of websites forbidden by a company’s cybersecurity division. “Whitelist” means the opposite – a list of items automatically approved.
Floyd’s death has sparked a re-examination of words that might carry racial overtones. For example, some realtors are no longer using the term “master bedroom,” and Universal Music Group’s Republic Records stopped using the word “urban” to describe music genres and internal departments or roles.
JP Morgan appears to be the first in the financial sector to remove most references to these racially problematic phrases, and it comes after the bank has said it is taking other steps to promote Black professionals and anti-bias culture training for staff.
Columbia Business School programming professor, Mattan Griffel, said such terms have long been controversial and can be difficult to change.
“The technology that underpins bank operations is often a spaghetti-like mess that results from merged companies, decades-old code and third-party systems, and any change can have cascading effects that are difficult to predict,” says Griffel.
“Changing these terms within the bank’s code could take millions of dollars and months of work,” he adds.
“This is not a trivial” investment by the bank, Griffel says. “This kind of language and terminology is so entrenched. It has to (change) and now is as good a time as any.”