Rashida Tlaib accused of racism over facial recognition technology comments

"Analysts need to be African Americans, not people that are not," Tlaib said to Craig, who is black. "I think non-African Americans think African Americans all look the same.

Michigan Congresswoman, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, visited the Real-Time Crime Center, after accepting an invitation to come and see how police “responsibly use it in efforts to identify criminals involved in violent crimes.”

However, during her visit, Tlaib – who is of Palestinian descent and not African American, was criticized for saying that, “non-African Americans think African Americans all look the same.”

The saga started when, back in August, Tlaib echoed the voice of many in suggesting that police stop using facial recognition technology. Tlaib, in a Tweet, told Detroit Police that they “should probably rethink this whole facial recognition bulls**t.”

The Detroit Police responded by offering Tlaib a tour so she should see how the technology was helping to apprehend criminals.

“@RashidaTlaib Before you criticize the software, come to our Real Time Crime Center to see how we @detroitpolice responsibly use it in efforts to identify criminals involved in violent crimes. Let’s set a date,” Detroit Police responded.

James Craig, Detroit's Police Chief, this week showed a rather skeptical Tlaib how the software worked, the limitations of the software, and where it needed human intervention to improve accuracy.

Chief Craig introduced Tlaib to Andrew, a valued African American facial recognition analyst, and tried to explain how the technology and human intervention work together.

“Analysts need to be African Americans, not people that are not,” Tlaib said to Craig, who is black. “I think non-African Americans think African Americans all look the same.

“I’ve seen it even on the House floor: People calling Elijah Cummings ‘John Lewis,' and John Lewis ‘Elijah Cummings,' and they’re totally different people,” Tlaib said. referring to the two black Democratic congressmen.

“I see it all the time, and I love them because they go along with it,” she added.

But Craig rejected Tlaib's claims, saying: “I trust people who are trained, regardless of race; regardless of gender. It’s about the training.”

“I know. But it does make a huge difference with the analysts,” Tlaib replied, adding later in the conversation, “I think there’s actually been studies out that it’s hard for, you know like African Americans would identify African Americans, similar, Latino: same thing.”

When asked by on-site reporters if she was suggesting that African American people shouldn't identify white people she said, “Look it up” and walked away.

Chief Craig then attempted to explain facial matching accuracy to the congresswoman, but she cut in, saying: “We know it’s close to a 60% error rate because it doesn’t identify black people; you know that, Chief. Chief, the error rate among African Americans, especially women, 60%.”

“I understand the technology. That’s why I’m taking you through it personally,” Chief Craig professionally responded.

“I know, just see if you can get some of our money back before we fix it,” she said, referring to the state funding for what Tlaib says is ineffective technology.

“No,” Craig replied.

Later, in a TV interview with WDIV-TV, a local broadcaster, Chief Craig said that a number of staff members, both black and white, were offended by Congresswoman Tlaib's remarks.

“It’s insulting. We have a diverse group of crime analysts, and what she said — that non-whites should not work in that capacity because they think all black people look alike — is a slap in the face to all the men and women in the crime center,” Craig said.

The Chief added that all officers and civilian employees go through mandatory implicit bias training.

“That’s something we train for, and it’s valuable training, but to say people should be barred from working somewhere because of their skin color? That’s racist.”

Cindy Harper

Cindy Harper is a tech news staff writer based in Maryland, USA. After getting her start in local journalism, Cindy now reports mostly on social media stories for Reclaim. [email protected]