Should We Be So Shocked That a Racist Google Search Leads to the White House?

Putting phrases with the n-word into Google Maps reveals yet another example of the rise of hate since Obama took office.

(Photo: Flickr)

May 20, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Type in the name of a hot new restaurant, “Starbucks,” or “gas station,” and in a split second, Google Maps will pull up point-to-point directions to get you there. But the search giant has found itself at the center of a controversy after it was discovered on Tuesday that typing phrases that include racial slurs—“n---a house,” “n----r house,” or “n----r king”—is taking most users to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: the White House.

News of the offensive search results went viral after Howard University alumnus Bomani Buckhalter posted a screenshot of one of them on Twitter on Tuesday. He tweeted that he read about the search results in an online group for graduates of the historically black college but couldn’t believe that they could be true—so he decided to try to replicate the searches.

A few hours later, Deray McKesson, a prominent activist who has been heavily involved in protesting the deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement officers, tried the search and tweeted the results to his 125,000 Twitter followers.

Google hasn’t offered an explanation for how or why the White House was labeled in this way, but the company issued a statement that suggests that it may be the work of hackers. “Some inappropriate results are surfacing in Google Maps that should not be, and we apologize for any offense this may have caused. Our teams are working to fix this issue quickly,” reads the statement.

As of Wednesday, the search results were still popping up on both the desktop and mobile app versions of Google Maps.

Although some may see the Google Maps search results as an example of microaggression, an unintended or unconscious form of discrimination—after all, the Ku Klux Klan isn't burning a cross on anyone's lawn, and no one is being denied a job or housing—someone had to deliberately set up this search result. In April Brian Seely, the guy who made a Google Maps search result putting Edward Snowden in the White House, detailed to the website Search Engineland how easy it is to make a fake listing—and that Google has known about the problem for at least a year.

According to the website, all someone has to do is "create a business in Google Maps at an address where you can receive mail and with a phone number you can receive calls to. You get Google to send you a verification postcard to the address. Once the business is verified, you delete it from your account."

After doing that, the hacker simply has to "use another Google account to claim this now orphaned business. You gain control over it by doing verification via phone. Once that’s happened, you’re free to move the business to anywhere you want, change the name and alter other details."

Google announced in May that, thanks to spam and hackers, it would be ending its crowdsourced Map Maker system. But, as this incident shows, fake listings are still alive and well.

“I’m very disappointed that they haven’t taken it down,” says Lecia Brooks, outreach director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “I know that they can take care of it immediately, but to feign ignorance [about how it happened] and say that they’re still working on it is ridiculous.”

Despite her disappointment, Brooks is “not at all surprised” by the search results.

“Most folks would accept that racism continues to be alive and well in the United States, and President Obama’s election in 2008 and his reelection in 2012 show us two things: One, that there are a majority of people who are ready to continue to move the country forward by electing a person of color to the highest office in the land, and then there are those who continue to push back against it,” says Brooks. The civil rights organization has seen a steep increase in the number of hate groups in the nation, from 602 in 2000 to more than 1,000 today.

Brooks says that incidents such as these search results serve as a reminder from white supremacists to Obama—and other African Americans—to stay in their place. “Just like the lynchings of the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, this is a message to an entire class of people—in this incident, black folks.”

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Simran Noor, the codirector of policy & strategy at the Center for Social Inclusion, a New York City–based national policy strategy organization whose mission is to dismantle structural racism, says that the search results are disturbing. But “perhaps more troubling is that too many Americans do not confront their unconscious racial bias, making them more susceptible to racially coded political appeals for smaller government and slashing our social safety net.”
Noor believes the search results are a clear reminder that "it's a myth that we live in a post-racial society." As long as we hold on to our belief that Obama's election and reelection solved our long history of inequality, many Americans can continue to ignore "the many ways in which institutions—criminal justice, housing, education—create barriers to opportunity for communities of color."
Although some Americans might not think the offensive search results relate to those issues of structural racism or might believe the situation deserves an urgent response, "it creates trauma and very real fear in black folks," says Brooks. "If someone can do this to the president of the United States, they can do it to anybody."