The Three Civil Rights–Era Leaders Who Warned of Computers and RacismBreaking News
tags: racism, civil rights, computers, technology
Charlton McIlwain is vice provost for faculty engagement and a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. He is the author of Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, From the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter.
The 1960s—that was the explosive decade when the computer revolution and the civil rights revolution collided, catapulting us toward our current moment. But I also discovered that in the 1960s, our civil rights forebears, not the computer wizards, were the ones highlighting the challenges such innovation would bring. Those civil rights figures provided a blueprint for not just their own technology future in the 1960s, but our own future that we must confront now.
Many of the computer scientists and engineers of the day seemed indifferent to the civil rights movement. However, three civil rights figures—the philosopher, the planner, and the visionary—were keenly aware of, were concerned about, and directly addressed the growing revolution in computing and automation.
A. Philip Randolph was a labor leader. But when it came to the subject of automation and technology, he was our chief ethicist. Randolph never shied away from a good fight, but he thought it foolish to resist technology’s progress. “You cannot destroy the machine. You cannot stifle the invention of various geniuses in the world,” he once said. Still, Randolph outlined key principles that should govern technology’s design and use. To Randolph, technology wasn’t just the domain of technical experts or privileged classes. Technology, he asserted, was the “collective creation of the people.” As such, he believed “the people should share in the fruits of technology.”
As the longtime head of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph was primarily concerned that automation would displace Black workers. But he was no Luddite. He simply believed that public interest should govern and guide technology. He stressed that “the community and the government have a responsibility” to see that technology produced public goods.
In that vision, Randolph gave us a model for technology governance. But it was Bayard Rustin—architect of the famed March on Washington—who developed a plan. Rustin knew that automation’s employment threat was merely a symptom of a more deeply rooted problem: America’s antipathy toward Blackness. Rustin knew that negative consequences caused by automation would hurt Black people first and hardest. But it was precisely this certainty that led Rustin to see a way forward—through planning