The Race Card
Netlore Archive: Does Microsoft Word's thesaurus contain hidden racist sentiments? Are the Social Security numbers of U.S. citizens encoded with racial data? Answers here.
(Originally published April 14, 1999)
Not to downplay the seriousness of racial prejudice, but alleged examples of it are popping up in the oddest places these days.
Take Microsoft Word, Bill Gates' ubiquitous word processing application for Windows. Rumors flew late last year accusing Microsoft programmers of embedding covert racist sentiments in the software. To wit:
Subject: FW: ms word
You will not believe this....TRY IT FOR YOURSELF!!!!!! I did this on my system and it's true! I don't believe it! You won't believe your eyes:
1. Go into MS Word
I know you may not have MS Word but what happens is you get a message saying, "I'll drink to that."
Lesson learned: Don't be fooled into thinking racism isn't alive and well - it has just taken different form. I wonder if Bill Gates knows what his programmers have put into the system.
NOW, might be the time to let him know! Pass it on!!
Plenty of folks did believe their eyes when they tried the experiment and got precisely the results predicted. An addendum to the rumor held that if you typed in "I hate black people," the thesaurus would respond: "I should say so." That one proved accurate, too.
The evidence was right there on the screen - Word for Windows was apparently programmed to agree with bigoted statements!
The key word is apparently.
As anyone who dug a little deeper found, the software responds identically to sentences with no racist content whatsoever. For example, if you type in "I'd like all Microsoft programmers to die," it answers: "I'll drink to that."
In fact, the thesaurus will match any statement beginning with the words "I'd like" with "I'll drink to that." It will match any phrase beginning with "I hate" with the statement "I should say so."
The Microsoft Word thesaurus isn't racist; it's simply none too bright. The program copes with sentences it doesn't know how to parse by coughing up the stock phrases from an alphabetical list - which is about as undiabolical as it gets.
Though dubious from the start and easily proven false, the rumors seem credible to some people for a couple of good reasons:
- Prima facie evidence confirms the basic facts.
- The racial interpretation plays on justifiable suspicions held by many African Americans that covert prejudice not only exists, but is liable to crop up anywhere.
Have We Been 'Color-Coded' by the Government?
The same factors have contributed to the spread of another false rumor, this one concerning supposed racial markers coded into the Social Security numbers of all U.S. citizens:
Subject: "Checking By the Numbers"
I received this troubling mail. My 5th number is EVEN. Check Yourself and let the rest of us know. Maybe there is something to this.
This is a pretty shocking discovery!!!!
Let's see if we can't do a fair sampling amongst our friends, and see if this is a miscommunication, or have we stumbled onto a Discrimination Tool (or better said, is this a "hidden discrimination") that has been in place for YEARS??
Have you heard anything about Social Security Numbers and African Americans and the 5th digit in your SS#? Supposedly, if you are an African American or a Minority the 5th digit in your SS# is EVEN, and ODD if you are White???
It has been said if you take a poll most African Americans will have an EVEN 5th digit. Rumor has it some companies are looking at potential employee's SS#'s to discriminate.
Why not send this email to every African American and Minority that you know!! Someone polled 35 African Americans, 34 had a EVEN 5th digit in their SS#, the 35th person was White/Puerto Rican).
The person who forwarded this to me was duly skeptical, but noted that in her case the formula proved to be accurate: the fifth digit of her her Social Security number is even and her skin color is black. But it also proved to be the case that my fifth digit is even, and I'm white. It was easy to establish through further samplings of friends and coworkers that the rumor is, in fact, false.
Even so, it's not hard to understand why some people are inclined to believe it. The rumor is targeted at African Americans and plays on their sensitivities and expectations as a minority group. This, in turn, lends undue weight to the luck of the draw when the evidence is brought out of our wallets.
To make matters worse, statistically, the fourth and fifth digits of anyone's SSN - which, according to the Social Security Administration, are assigned in a predetermined order regardless of who receives them - are more likely to be even than odd simply because of the esoteric method used to parcel them out.
Fine Line Between Paranoia and Legitimate Mistrust
I might add that suspicions about government attempts to track citizens or invade their privacy by means of I.D. numbers are by no means unique to racial minorities. White pundits condemn the very idea of national I.D. cards and some even decry what they regard as the "de facto" use of Social Security cards for just that purpose.
There's often a fine line between paranoia and legitimate mistrust of The Powers That Be. Rumors inevitably cross that line, but not every false or outlandish belief of this kind stems from delusions of persecution. Such rumors can also express, albeit in exaggerated, even outlandish form, valid and deep-seated concerns within a given society or subgroup of that society.
From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: L. A. Johnson looks into rumors of Social Security "color-coding"
Your Social Security Number
Big Brother explains it all for you