Sherrilyn Ifill

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Brian Brackeen, managing partner of Lightship Capital

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund President and Director-Counsel, Sherrilyn Ifill, was in A Space Called Tribe on July 12 for a conversation about race, artificial intelligence and human rights.

Brian Brackeen moderated the talk. Brackeen is managing partner of investment firm Lightship Capital and founder and former CEO of Kairos, a facial recognition software company.

The purpose of the conversation was to shed light on issues of concern to the NAACP LDF, which is a separate entity from the NAACP, explain the LDF’s position and goals generally.

Ifill wanted to meet with Brackeen “as soon as he could meet” to discuss algorithmic bias. Algorithmic bias is inherent in people existing in the automatic functions of computer databases. Brackeen likened it to an infant learning.“It’s like a child,” he said “It doesn’t know anything. It’s trained to find certain faces so it may be really good at finding pale males.”

Ifill provided an actual example from New York.The NYPD has a gang database that has 31,000 people in which 99 percent of them are Black. However, the NYPD for over a decade - 2002 to 2013 - used the stop-and-frisk program, which a federal judge later ruled was racially discriminatory and unconstitutional. 

“What you’re putting in is already corrupted,” Ifill said. “This is big and there are lots of iterations of it.”

In 1940 civil rights lawyer and eventual Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall founded the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The LDF became a separate organization from the NAACP in 1957. It was lawyers of the LDF who made the arguments that eventually led to the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. That case and the decision began racial desegregation of schools in the United States.

Ifill graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1984. She received her juris doctorate from New York University School of Law in 1987. She began her career in rights protection with the American Civil Liberties Union, then joined the LDF in 1988. She left the LDF in 1993 to enter legal academia. She has taught and wrote about civil rights for over 20 years establishing law clinics and publishing a book in 2007, “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century.”

The LDF invited Ifill back to lead the organization, making her the second woman to do so and its seventh director-counsel.The LDF, though headquartered in New York, does 90 percent of its work in the South. The South is also home to a majority of Black people, 52 percent, Ifill said. She said the reason the LDF is seeking systemic change is because of all the territory needed to monitor to protect the rights of people of color.

“Why we need the arm of the federal government to act is because of all of the counties in Alabama or in Georgia,” Ifill said. “We’ll never have enough resources.”

The LDF is nonpartisan.“It keeps us out of stuff I don’t want to be in,” Ifill said. “I don’t want to endorse candidates. Our focus is the voters.”

She also warned Black people to not disregard the impact of discrimination that starts with national origin. Ifill said the LDF was the first organization to challenge the Department of Homeland Security over its rescinding of Temporary Protected Status for people from countries including Sudan, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Haiti. The citizenship question proposed for the 2020 Census but blocked by a Supreme Court decision could have “exacerbated” the undercount of Black people.

“People’s eyes glaze over when we talk about it like it has nothing to do with them,” Ifill said. Ifill has also argued environmental justice cases. She said foreclosure liens from unpaid water bills is one of the biggest ways Black people are losing their homes. By 2030, 41 percent of Americans won’t be able to afford water, Ifill predicted.

The conversation ended with Ifill reminding voters elections happen more often than they are widely promoted. “Vote in local elections. Stop thinking elections are every four years. Voting is every year," she said.

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