Whiteness and the Technopolitics of Mutual Dehumanization: A Baldwinian Analysis

“At least I am not black”  is a phrase that I want you to use as thought experiment for a few moments.  The phrase evokes a sentiment, a psychological conditioning, that has been analyzed by numerous historians–most convincingly in recent decades by David Roediger.  The gist is that no matter how poor one’s station in life may be, one can find solace in a community of peers of the same race.  This phrase unearths a mental imposition of false assumptions and a mythology of social cohesiveness.  At its core,”at least I am not black” presents the illusion that one is superior to others based on an imagined kinship–an assumption of what one is not as an affirmation of what one might be.  This mindset is more than a pathology.  Its utility, durability, and longevity would render it more fitting as kind of technology.
More simply stated, whiteness works as a tool.   It is a simple machine like the mechanical devices that change the direction or magnitude of force.  One of the most simple of machines illustrates the gist of this idea—the use of leverage to present an illusion of greater strength.  A small man can lift a large load using a lever.  To the uninitiated eye, this man may appear to have herculean strength, when in fact he could be weaker than the average man.  The lever is what makes the difference.
man-and-lever
Whiteness is a tool that creates distinctions in identity to leverage power.  The greater the distance between the man and the stone, the more effective his force on the stone becomes.  Likewise the greater the perceived distance in assumptions about culture, values, intelligence, and aptitude between white and non-white people, the more powerful whiteness becomes to those who employ it but also to those who are being acted upon.  These systems of reality matter.

If thinking about whiteness in this way is a strange concept to you, please consider the work of Peggy McIntoshZeus Leonardo & Michalinos Zembylas, and Michael Adas. These are a few recent works that have reinterpreted a longer discourse among black writers and intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mariah W. Stewart, and Ida Wells.  They all discuss the power of whiteness not as an intrinsic entity but rather as a tool that leverages force and in doing so creates identity.

A very interesting point that Baldwin made in a Cambridge Union debate with William Buckley focused on notions of whiteness and how white identity in the American dream came at the expense of blacks. This is one side of another argument that is equally compelling but less acknowledged.  Baldwin put forth the proposition that the notion of white superiority came at a cost–a loss of a sense of humanity on the part of whites. Baldwin argued that the paradox of what had happened to white southerners was actually worse than what happened to Negroes in the process:
But what happens to the poor white man’s, the poor white woman’s, mind? It is this they have been raised to believe, and by now they helplessly believe, that no matter how terrible some of their lives may be and no matter what disaster overtakes them, there is one consolation like a heavenly revelation— at least they are not black. Screenshot 2017-04-06 05.37.55
According to Baldwin, the decision to employ a lever of racial superiority may be effective in multiplying force but it comes with severe consequences.  Racism is a mutual tragedy that dehumanizes both blacks and whites.  Feelings and affirmations of white superiority act as a lever to exert a large force over a small distance at one end by exerting only a small force over a greater distance at the other.  In other words, whiteness and the trappings of institutional racism come at a cost.  In a racially stratified society, one can only become more powerful by further alienating and distancing oneself from others. The lever of whiteness is a technology of power.  It is a tool that enables a relatively small and arbitrary population to feel superior but it also disengages people from the fellowship of a common humanity. Perhaps the best rejoinder to the phrase “at least I am not black”  would be “at least I am not a tool.”  Mind your tools, lest you become them.
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I Have a Tweet: Martin Luther King, Jr., Social Media, and the Cure for Cynicism

If Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, what would he tweet? Would he be engaging trolls in twitter battles, would he be following Kim Kardashian, would he be retweeting inspirational quotes, and reposting the latest memes? Uh, probably. l have a funny feeling that he would be addicted to social media because he was a really cool, fun, young-spirited man who loved to engage people. He was one of the youngest people in his class at Morehouse, he was a chainsmoker, he loved Star Trek, he liked pool, and enjoyed music. However, there is at least one aspect of social media and pop culture that we would not be engaged in–cynicism.
Before I get to that, I thought it would be fun to “hack” King’s Twitter account from 1964, to see what he had to say. The closest thing to Twitter they had in the 1960s was a Western Union Telegram–kind of like reading tweets on paper the color of the Kelvin Instragram filter. Malcolm X sent his “frenemy” MLK @yungking a message on Tuesday, June 30, 1964 that offered Dr. King assistance after the Ku Klux Klan had done a drive-by shooting on non-violent protestors in St. Augustine. #tryme
malcolm-x-to-mlk-telegram
A month before he was killed, King sent a telegram commending Cesar Chavez for his personal sacrifice and commitment to the use of nonviolence in union strikes. Cesar Chavez, was the Mexican American leader of migrant and immigrant farmworkers in California.  He had organized a strike and a 25-day fast to protest the unjust working conditions and treatment of workers. #hungryforjustice
mlk-telegram-to-chavez
When a bootlegger released a mixtape of King’s draft of what came to be the “I Have A Dream” speech, King took him to court and sued to have the proceeds directly benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Berry Gordy, that generation’s equivalent of Kanye West, telegraphed King and stated that he would be willing produce the album at Motown and even lose money on the project if it would help the cause. #2woke2bebroke
berry-gordy-telegram-to-mlk
King’s telegrams reveal the impact of his social media messaging. King used his platform in the church, on the streets, and in the world to build up people and to advance justice, never to tear down or demean his enemies. King reminded us so eloquently in hundreds of sermons and speeches that our response to the world should be one based in positive change rather than cynicism. Speaking to high school students in Philadelphia in 1967 a speech entitled “What is Your Life’s Blueprint,” King said, “[Y]our life’s blueprint, must be a commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice. Don’t allow anybody to pull you so low as to make you hate them. Don’t allow anybody to cause you to lose your self-respect to the point that you do not struggle for justice. However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody and so you must be involved in the struggle for freedom.”
For every one person who is using social media to organize, speak truth to power today, five people are using it for snark, harassment, cyberbullying, or hate speech. Millions are using social media to hide behind an anonymizing wall of cynicism. Cynicism is a belief that people are purely self-interested and one should be dismissive of any solutions that require community. Similarly, apathy is a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern. As some have written and King declared, it is apathy, not hate, that is the opposite of love. The greatest enemies of our nation are not the proponents of racial violence, the homophobe hurling slurs, or the xenophobe spitting insults at immigrants. Rather the greatest enemy of a “beloved community” are indifferent and uninterested individuals, too jaded by cynicism to commit to any lasting vision of change. Far too often our social media has made us anti-social, less invested in the principles that King urged us to uphold. That cynicism has made us far too apathetic and detached. Speaking of these followers King once said: “Detachment is the word which best describes them. Too unconcerned to love and too passionless to hate, too detached to be selfish and too lifeless to be unselfish, too indifferent to experience joy and too cold to experience sorrow, they are neither dead nor alive; they merely exist.”
A young college student named Barbara Jones Omolade, felt the pain of this detachment and recognized those same tendencies in her generation. She was a young woman enrolled in college in 1964 like many of you today. Her parents expected her to land a quiet job teaching in New York but she had other plans that left her father stone faced in silence and her mother weeping at the kitchen table. She came to Atlanta to work in the movement. What would you do if you defied your parents? She sent a snap (letter) to her parents:
Dear Mommy and Daddy,
I decided to work for SNCC…Last summer, I used to watch civil rights demonstrators in Greenwood, Mississippi, on television. I used to cry because I know I should be there. But I also cried because I was relieved to find people trying to change what I thought was unchangeable….You see I thought that the people in those demonstrations on television were extraordinary people like Martin Luther King Jr. but they are ordinary college kids and old people.
Yes, Daddy, I am brainwashed like you said; brainwashed by the fact that I’m black and I have nothing to lose in this fight against the chains that bound me and my people. Going to college, living in a comfortable house, having clothes, even being able to get a job in New York is not going to change the fact that I’m a black girl in a white man’s country and I have nothing to lose by fighting racism. Sure I can teach in New York, but that isn’t enough. The system is corrupt all over. It shortchanges the Negro and Puerto Rican kids and provides better schooling for the white kids. If I taught I could change one school, one classroom. But in the movement I can help bring about more basic changes which can allow me to go back to the South that I love and live there with my friends, white and black, building a new world and living a life with meaning…this is what I went to college for…I was a history major because I wanted to make as well as teach history.
Barbara Jones Omolade’s letter reminds us that the successes of King were built by the scaffolding of thousands of people who were LinkedIn into a network of hope, who refused to settle for cynicism. Who refused to allow their towns, their schools, their colleges and universities, their government settle for the narrow-minded interest of the status quo. The women, the deacons, the disabled, the timid, the outcasts, the poor, those with unpopular views that had made them outcasts in their own communities participated in a national hackathon for justice and the world has never been the same.

Barbara Jones Omolade, “Building a New World” in Hands on the Freedom Plow, p.388-392.
So today I have a tweet!  Martin Luther King’s tweet for America in 140 characters: “Not the media or man that makes a movement but the message of the messengers, not the number of characters but the content of character. #mlk

Technology is taking jobs away from men—and reviving a pre-industrial version of masculinity — Quartz

Many men lost their jobs when technology made them obsolete. The new jobs available were soul-crushing, undignified, and required an arduous commute—and that’s assuming companies would hire them. Most employers wouldn’t, because the men were considered too old and unskilled for the new work. And then a false prophet with messy hair emerged, promising to…

via Technology is taking jobs away from men—and reviving a pre-industrial version of masculinity — Quartz

Towards the Anti-Racist Algorithm: Digital Alterations of Racial Realities

In January of this year, David Auerbach wrote a very interesting article in Slate entitled, “The Code We Can’t Control.” The article was part review of Frank Pasquale’s Black Box Society. Summarily, both of these works urge us to more carefully consider our assumptions that computers are incapable of perpetuating racism and bias. To some extent both of these works illustrate that while computers do not create racial prejudice, the implicit biases of programmers are responsible for that, computers can perpetuate and contribute to racism by digitizing the logic of discrimination.

black

Auerbach provided several examples from a recent study by Latanya Sweeny on Google Ad Words that illustrate his previous concerns as well as those of Pasquale. The fact that computers are complicit tools in maintaining a racist architecture urges us to also consider alternatives to our current virtual and physical realities. If in fact computers can be programmed to perpetuate racist structures, we can also program them to perpetuate anti-racist approaches. the same Google ads that serve up arrest records for “black-identified” names can also be used to redirect racists to resources that challenge their misconceptions.  Of course this would fundamentally challenge the idea of search.  The purpose of search is to effectively list what you are looking for not necessarily what you need.  Or is it?  At least we assume, it is.  Should Google or any other search engine be in the business of social engineering? In short, the answer to that question is yes.  Big data search has long been involved in that enterprise from nudging you to buy movie tickets, re-ranking recommended sites, serving ads based on your unique history, etc.  I think the more appropriate question that we should be asking is why do we view a digital intervention to circumvent racial discrimination as unorthodox while we readily accept other forms of social engineering.  The answer to this question is deeper than search engines or algorithms.

googleprompt

The way to reverse racism in the digital universe depends on identical strategies of dismantling it in the physical world. We cannot accept the notion of a de facto state of racial neutrality.  The solution to socioeconomic inequalities has never been in maintaining the status quo. In order for us to effectively deal with racism in the world and online we must actively counter it with alternative visions and algorithms of the world we wish to inherit.

Remarks on Power Over Peoples

Daniel Headrick’s Power Over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism 1400 to the Present fits into the author’s broader explorations on the relationship between technology, social change, and state power as explored in Tools of Empire (1981), Tentacles of Progress (1988), and The Invisible Weapon (1991). Collectively, these works help us to better understand the ways technology shapes state power and impacts the relationship between technocratic elites and those that they seek to subdue.

In this work, Headrick approaches the subject of how the power of technology over environment translates into Western efforts to expand and subjugate populations lacking the tools to fend off these incursions. Relying largely on themes characteristic of the anti-deterministic camp, Headrick makes a strong case against viewing technology as the sole reason for Western power over colonial subjects. In summary, Headrick argues that technological mastery translates into control over environment–and by extension people–who resisted Western hegemony using innovated, borrowed, and emulated technological responses.

pizarro

Using a narrative approach, Headrick is responding to hubris regarding the technological achievement of the ‘West over the rest’. He urges the reader not to make the conclusion that all technological showdowns were predetermined in the West’s favor but rather he engages several patterns that challenge popular misconceptions about the historical role of technology.

First, he counters how readers tend to take a presentist approach to Western technological superiority, forgetting that technological advances in the present are a relatively recent phenomenon (mid-fifteenth century) in the long narrative of human history. Secondly, he urges us to consider that technologies are rarely evenly distributed but that their asymmetrical accumulation yield advantages of power over environment and by extension people. These powers are compounded by time and become important historical force because they tend to compel the extension of power and further development of new technologies. However, in Headrick’s assessment, technological advancement can present the illusion of self-fulfilling prophecies of cultural, ethnic, and or racial superiority damning those blessed with technological might to the path of eternal escalation. Lastly, he urges us to consider a connection between Western arrogance (relying on the work of Michael Adas) in the search for technological advantage and motives for imperialism.

This work relies largely on existing secondary sources to support these claims. Periodically there are important vignettes, that taken in the context of the original writer do not present the same perspective as when intertwined in Headrick’s narrative. For example, the first two chapters are largely reassessments of previously existing work on the role of naval exploration and navigation in Western imperialism. These chapters present no new factual information per se but they do create a new narrative that challenges what many have thought about as a simple explanation for European mastery of the seas. They get the reader to consider the possibilities of alternative futures based on the presence of advanced navigation technologies in many nations who are considered technologically irrelevant today.  Importantly, he takes up the complex issue of why European navigational technologies translated into the extension of state power over foreign lands and people.  For Headrick, Western Imperialism is not a matter of destiny but something more complex.

Towards the middle and end of the book, Headrick picks up themes addressing how Western nations often came to equate technological superiority with cultural superiority. Importantly, he illustrates how these views can be misleading as technology does not emerge in a vacuum but in a shared process of innovation. He demonstrates how people who were thought to be technologically and culturally inferior were often quite adept at using new technologies to thwart their more technologically advanced adversaries. For example, in Chapter 3 and 4, Headrick’s discussion of the uses of horses as a military technology against Native Americans and the complete failure of horses in colonial projects in Africa are two examples that contradict popular belief.

His interpretations of technology are supported by the evidence used but because the sources tend to be secondary sources based on primary state accounts, we tend to see very little from the perspective of those who were the victims of Western technology. For example, in addressing the problem of a self-perpetuating cycle of arrogance and conquest, Headrick urges us to consider the British invasion of Afghanistan by Lord Auckland. He narrates how the failed attempt to hold Kabul was not only a question of incompetence on the side of the British but an example of how technological might is not generally transferable to different environmental contexts and particularly how ineffective it is in asymmetrical warfare. We see brief profiles of the technologically-besieged such as Abd al-Qadir, Sheykh Mansur, and Samori Toure but most of the insights we have are related to the European descriptions of these encounters and their tools.

We see brief profiles of the seiged such as Abd al-Qadir, Sheykh Mansur, and Samori Toure but most of the insights we have are related to the European descriptions of these encounters and their tools.

We see brief profiles of the seiged such as Abd al-Qadir, Sheykh Mansur, and Samori Toure but most of the insights we have are related to the European descriptions of these encounters and their tools.

Before we are too critical of this shortcoming, Headrick’s selection of events and perspectives can be better understood by examining the kinds of sources he employed. As previously mentioned, the most important sources to his argument are established secondary accounts of primary sources that are definitely skewed toward the powerful. However, Power Over Peoples is quite effective at examining these perspectives in light of a broader history to pull out paradoxes that complicate previous interpretations if taken at face value. Headrick is quite adept at this process, making the sources consulted adequate for this study.

This work largely challenges the conventional wisdom of many political scientists and technocrats who seek the salvation of humanity through technological superiority alone. Power Over Peoples is a warning against Western pride in technological might, implying that those who seek to extend their power through technological advantage alone may witness their own tools become useless to master the new environment those tools have created.

Our Tools Will Not Save Us: Why Study the History of Technology

There are several great reasons to explore technological change using historical perspectives and methods of research but so many people are unaware of them–or opposed.  In the present, we have a popular view of history that is focused on great men and epic battles but these emphases provide little to explain momentous changes at the core of today’s major events.  To be fair, historians have long challenged the formulaic conventions of rulers and generals as the only subjects worthy of consideration.  However, most of the public is unaware of this shift.  Consequently, most would suggest that the study of technology belongs to those with the greatest level of technical expertise (i.e. engineers).  While a high degree of technical expertise certainly yields useful perspectives on technological shifts, there is much to be gained from a study of technological change based in the humanities.

1. As Ira Brodsky has argued, technology continues to play an increasingly important role in historical change but few people take the time to consider these changes in perspective and the broader historical impact of their evolution. Far too often our views of technological change tend to operate in two camps.  One the one hand, we tend to exalt technology to the level of a sentient force as evidenced in the concept of the technium popularized by Kevin Kelly‘s What Technology Wants. At the other extreme we tend to minimize the negative impacts of technology and its ongoing relevance or react strongly to particular forms of technology we dislike.  We are largely oblivious to broader social and economic consequences of our adoptions and rejections. This form of Neo-Luddism (a misnomer in itself), tends to be particularly true for those trained in the so-called ‘soft’ disciplines of the humanities. The consequences are that we really have an underdeveloped idea of technology and its impact on human history.

2. A growing number of graduates from ‘hard’ disciplines are coming to terms with an inability to express their technological insights to a broader audience outside of the silos of their areas of expertise. Thinking and talking about technology in historical terms allows us to employ the power of the narrative as a tool to teach and understand even some of the most complicated technological subjects. This is particularly important given the findings of past reports of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council (NRC):

“Technology has become so user friendly it is largely “invisible.” Americans use technology with a minimal comprehension of how or why it works or the implications of its use or even where it comes from. American adults and children have a poor understanding of the essential characteristics of technology, how it influences society, and how people can and affect its development.” (Science and Engineering Indicators 2004)

3. Our education about the future, nay even the present, is more interdisciplinary in nature today than it has ever been. As the American university becomes more specialized, the workplace and the world around us has become much more responsive to ideas from vastly different disciplinary, cultural, and regional contexts. Traditionally, fields like history tended to focus on periods and regions as the central focus of explaining change over time. Today, major thinkers in both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ disciplines are transgressing long established disciplinary boundaries in how they innovate and engage core questions.  Poets now code with the meter of Tennyson, artists extemporize on 3-D printers, and engineers must design with the insights of Jung.

While we marvel at these transgressions, we also underscore our own ignorance of the past.  Ada Lovelace cut her teeth on mathematics and programming while incorporating literary and poetic sensibilities. Leonardo Da Vinci, the world’s most famous polymath,  is well-known as a painter and an engineer.  B.F. Skinner, who made significant contributions to debates in modern psychology, was also an inventor and a tinkerer. Studying the history of technology will enable us to think about both inventors and innovation as part of a ‘big history’ or grand overlapping narrative of the exchange and application of knowledge instead of disjointed episodes of periodic genius. After all, great men and their battles are so overrated.

Most importantly, we need to think historically and critically about technology, emphasizing the broader cultural, economic, and political contexts of technological change over time in various eras of the past. We should be engaged in a broader cross-disciplinary discussion about the complex intellectual demands of a STEM-driven (science, technology, engineering, and math) society. What questions relevant to the human experience should educators and students be engaging if in fact we are in a society supposedly ‘driven’ by technology?  To what extent is humankind advanced and/or hindered by the tools we create? What historical lessons can we derive from technological events of the past to better engage the present as informed citizens, regardless of our level of technological expertise?

Why No Black Students Took the AP Computer Science Test in 11 States in 2013 and What I Intend to Do About It

Philip Emeagwali, computer scientist who black students can be inspired by.

There has been a lot of speculation concerning the lack of black students in technology fields.  Consistently, critics of policies promoting greater inclusiveness and differentiation of teaching strategies have argued that the reason for the disparities are rooted in mental capability and interest–not in structural problems.

Statistics released by the AP College Board in January of 2014 reveal some troubling disparities:

  • 11 states had no Black students take the exam: Alaska (21 exam takers -4.3% Black by population), Idaho (47 – 0.9% Black), Kansas (47 – 6.2% Black), Maine (161 – 1.0%), Mississippi (1 – 37.3%), Montana (11 – 0.67%), Nebraska (46 – 4.5%), New Mexico (57 – 3%), North Dakota (9 – 1%), Utah (103 – 1.2%), and Wyoming (0 – 1.2%).

Some people believe that this is a matter of inherent intelligence, arguing that black students are not good at computer science.  I disagree. I believe that this is a problem largely about pedagogy and less about aptitude.  Recent reports have emphasized how particular problem-based approaches to computer science and other fields have benefited minority students.  There is a lack of accessibility to these approaches and tech courses in many struggling schools where minorities are disproportionately represented.

Surely, in states where more than 25% of the population is African American yet less than ten black students attempt the test, common sense and probability would point to serious questions of accessibility not ability.

I think the solution to addressing this problem will probably not be championed by STEM field professionals alone. Integrated, interdisciplinary, cross-cultural approaches poses significant promise in educating the general public and aspiring STEM students about the barriers preventing access and achievement in the STEM fields by black students. It is necessary to tackle this problem from outside of the self-contained silo that often precludes effective minority recruitment to STEM fields.   This is what I intend to do about it.

1. Have students in my history classes identify the historical reasons for the disparity and write open letters to school districts and educators that should be doing better.

2. Request that the AP College Board donate promotional materials and preparatory resources to districts who have low numbers of black students who are participating in the exam.

3. Raise awareness about the popular misconceptions surrounding this issue.