Rayvon Fouché

In this guest editorial Dr. Rayvon Fouché, Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and author of Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation, looks at the intersections of race and science from 1619 to the present.

Building New Bridges: Rethinking the Relationships between African Americans, Science, and Technology

In the current historical moment, the time has come to rethink the historical relationships African Americans have had with science and technology. New questions need to be asked that will open new avenues of research and study. The central questions for this type of reevaluation are: from the arrival of the first African slaves to the present day, what types of relationships have African Americans had with science and technology, and how have these relationships changed over time? Using African American history as a guide, this essay will examine African Americans, science, and technology within four large historically bounded eras: 1619–1865, a time of institutionalized racial discrimination based on the biological concept of race; 1865–1954, the era of formalized race-based segregation; 1954–2003, a period of often reluctant integration in response to efforts by scholars, activists, and others to end the biological connection to race; and 2003–present, involving resegregation and the scientifically supported rebirth of race as a biological construct.

1619–1865: Institutionalized Racial Discrimination Based on the Biological Concept of Race

This first era begins with 1619, the year the first African slaves were brought to the “new world,” and goes up to 1865, the year that the United States Congress ratified the Emancipation Proclamation. During this period the dominant institution that influenced, directed, and controlled the lives of the enslaved Africans was slavery. In understanding the ways African American lives have been affected by science and technology, American slavery is a critical starting point because networks of science and technology, like guns and the slave ships that brought Africans to America, helped create the diverse group of people now known as African Americans.

However, in thinking about this racial/technological period it is necessary to not only examine the basic scientific and technological devices developed to control black bodies, such as shackles and whips, but also to explore slavery as a technology. To think broadly about the connections between race, science, and technology, it is important to move from a simple discussion about how and why specific scientific and technological design decisions were made to subjugate African Americans to an investigation of slavery as a scientific and technological system in which African Americans played the role of a replenishable energy source. The system of slavery would not have worked without a dehumanized and enslaved labor force providing the power. Sadly, enslaved African Americans were the cogs in a system that fundamentally contributed to their subjugation.

By interpreting slavery through the lens of science and technology, other relevant questions arise. For instance, could the reliance on relatively cheap slave labor have stunted early American innovation? Or did the rising prices for slaves, the growing complexities of controlling slaves, and Abolitionist efforts to end slavery create a great demand for technologies that eliminated the need for slave labor? During this period of American history, when the political structure had socially and culturally invested in the technological system of slavery, the end of slavery could have been an important step forward in American technological development.

1865–1954: Formalized Race-Based Segregation

The second era moves from 1865 to 1954—the year the Supreme Court of the United States declared in its Brown v. Board of Education decision that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal and violated the guarantee in the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution that all citizens would be equally protected under the law.

Much work on African Americans, science, and technology has focused on this era and the ways that African American inventors negotiated the racial terrain of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This research has not only investigated the lives of black inventors like Sarah Boone, Shelby Davidson, Sarah Goode, Frederick McKinley Jones, Lewis Howard Latimer, Jan Matzeliger, Elijah McCoy, and Garrett Morgan, but also the ways in which their inventions affected black people in the United States. For example, many African Americans patented inventions, like those of Granville Woods to improve railway communication (#388,803, 8/28/1888, Railway telegraphy) and railway design (#463,020, 11/10/1891, Electric railway system), which at best only partially benefited African Americans, and at worst contributed to the maintenance of racial segregation.

During this period many scientific and technological systems, like those associated with transportation, became powerful forces of segregation. New research about this period should study the ways in which science and technology manifested the politics of Jim Crow and how this affected African American lives. It should also examine how African Americans reclaimed science and technology for their own social and cultural agendas. For instance, trains and buses, with segregated or “Jim Crow” cars and seating, became battlegrounds for black identity and citizenship. Moments like the removal of the well-to-do black woman Ida Wells Barnett from the all white “ladies” car in 1884, the arrest of black professional Homer Plessy in 1892 when he tested the constitutionality of the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890, the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the nine black “Scottsboro Boys” on trumped up charges of raping two white women on a moving train in 1931, and the arrest of Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress Rosa Parks for not giving up her seat to a white man in 1955 are instances where black American identity has been negotiated through scientific and technological artifacts.

1954–2003: Reluctant Integration and the Desire to End the Biological Connection to Race

The third era is loosely bound by 1954 through the completion of the sequencing of the human genome in 2003. By the middle of the twentieth century, the biological connection to race began to unravel. In the United States, as in other nations, the ideas of Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Melville Herskowitz, and others who viewed race as a matter of culture rather than biology began to predominate in the universities, particularly in the north. Boas’s views, in turn, were strongly influenced by W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Gunnar Myrdal’s influential study, An American Dilemma (1944), likewise drew on the work of Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, and other black intellectuals whose work undermined the notion that peoples of African descent were racially inferior. The discrediting of scientific racism undoubtedly received its strongest impetus from the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany and the exposure of the horrors of the Final Solution. Nevertheless, scientific racists like Professor Wesley Critz George of the University of North Carolina continued to hold academic positions well into the 1950s.

Organizations like the United Nations also began to challenge the scientific basis of race. To reconstitute the ways race had been constructed, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) convened a panel of social and natural scientists and charged them with producing a definitive statement on racial difference. The panel produced two documents: Statement on Race (1950), and Statement on the Nature of Race and Race Differences (1951). These statements declared that race had no scientific basis and called for an end to racial thinking in scientific and political thought. Within the next two decades UNESCO would release two more statements: Proposal on the Biological Aspects of Race (1964), and Statement on Race and Racial Prejudice (1967). Although important, these statements did not immediately influence social policy or ingrained public attitudes about race.

It is interesting that during a period when there was a desire to end the biological connection to race, African Americans were increasingly embracing their identity as a racially defined group. Moreover, new information sciences and technologies of representation became important outlets for African Americans to publicly display their struggles to the larger, primarily white, American society. Research on this period should aim to unpack the complex nature of the relationships between African Americans, science, and technology during a profound moment of scientific change, technological evolution, and social upheaval. For instance, the technologically mediated televisual representation of African American people during the protests of the Civil Rights Movement changed the way white America saw and viewed African Americans. Black people went from docile, invisible, and silent laborers to vocal and outspoken protesters. These new images were in stark contrast to the servile images of Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind or Amos and Andy, which predominated in American popular culture. However, these new and quickly reproduced images of blackness assisted in condensing multiple protests into one dominant televisual event: the “March on Washington.” Similarly the legacy and work of Martin Luther King Jr. has been condensed to sound bites from his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963. Unfortunately, it also condemns King’s life to end in 1963 and overlooks his other ideas, particularly his writing about technology in his last published book in 1968, Where Do We Go from Here. In that book King questioned the growing divide between morality and technology, and the ways in which modern science and technology influenced global communities. He had a great deal of optimism, but was unsure humanity could unhinge itself from science and technology designed to subjugate communities rather than bring them together. To this end, King would write that “[w]hen scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men.”1

New research can also explore how, during this and other periods, African American people used technologies to redefine the public representation of blackness. For instance, the Black Panther Party effectively seized the scientific and technological power of the gun. Guns were instruments that historically had been used to control black bodies, but the Black Panther Party members inverted this power. They used one of the most potent and visible symbols of power and appropriated that power to create a sense of fear—the same fear that many African Americans had felt for generations—among many white Americans. The Black Panther Party appropriated the material and symbolic power of the gun and redeployed it against those who had used it so powerfully to control African Americans since the earliest days of slavery. As a result the Black Panther Party claimed a level of technological power African Americans had only rarely accessed.

2003–Present: Resegregation and the Scientifically Supported Rebirth of Race

The final period begins in 2003 and moves into the future. This is the most ambitious component of future research. In the 1990s, research began to show that the United States was resegregating along a race/technology digital divide (National Telecommunications and Information Administration [NTIA] 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000). The first “Falling Through the Net” report in 1995 would move the discussion from debates about “universal telephone service” and “telephone penetration” to the need for increased access, accumulation, and assimilation of information. Or, as the report stated, “While a standard telephone line can be an individual's pathway to the riches of the Information Age, a personal computer and modem are rapidly becoming the keys to the vault” (http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fallingthru.html). The follow-up reports in 1998 and 1999 solidified the language and policy and began using the all too familiar term “the digital divide.” It was at this historical moment that we began to see the digital divide being deployed to explain the “African American” condition. These discussions directly and indirectly implied that most African American people were incapable of keeping up with the digital revolution. The solution to this problem, as most of us remember, was to send more computers. In the burgeoning digitally driven information age, more terminals and connections to the “net” (or computer clubs or community technology centers) would solve the problem.

This body of work has told us a great deal about those on both sides of the divide; however, these studies do not adequately discern the various needs, uses, and information-seeking strategies of racially and ethnically marginalized communities. Recent studies have begun to reexamine the connections between race and technology to move past the traditional framing of the issues as an “access and use” problem. Yet to more completely understand the relationships between racially marginalized peoples like African Americans, science, and technology, a comparative historical foundation needs to be built. Historical research on the barriers to access of earlier analog and digital information and communication technologies—newspapers, radio, telephony, and television—will provide the necessary historical foundation to assess current and future barriers to technological access, use, development, and deployment. This research will be of significance to those interested in addressing the growing complexity of digital divides, as well as those who desire to reconceptualize technology policy to be more receptive to issues of inequality.

Race has also begun to reemerge in a new way with the completion of the DNA sequence of the human genome by the Human Genome Project (HGP) in 2003. Some of the most promising and troubling outcomes of the HGP in the context of race have to do with genetic therapy. Genetic researchers contend that the human genome consists of chromosome units or haplotype blocks. Haplotype maps (HapMaps) can possibly provide a simple way for genetic researchers to quickly and efficiently search for genetic variations related to common diseases and drug responses. The danger of this research is to re-ensconce the biological concept of race within scientific practice and knowledge production. It is already common practice for physicians to make clinical decisions based on a patient’s perceived race. The positive potential of HapMaps could be overshadowed by the manipulation of genetic data to support racialized stereotypes, renew claims of genetic differentiation between races, and add biological authority to ethnic stereotypes. These pitfalls arise when genetic data become the techno-scientific basis upon which racially specific drugs or treatments are designed. In 2003, the United States Food and Drug Administration proposed guidelines that would require all new drugs be evaluated for the effects on different racial groups. In the modern world, the genetic origins of race reappear much more quickly than they are eliminated.

In order to effectively address the connections between race, science, and technology in America, we must carefully think about the methods, tools, and techniques used to examine these relationships. For African Americans, knowledge about technological life must also be examined anew because it is inextricably intertwined with relations of power that are regularly applied to regulate black existence. Most of what we know about the relations between black people, science, and technology primarily comes from dominant subject positions, which tell us more about the ways African Americans are and have been controlled and oppressed than how black people interact, have interacted, and will interact with science and technology from their locations within American society. What this has meant in practical terms is that African Americans, like other groups marginalized in the United States, have not been written into studies of technology because they do not easily fit into the traditional historical narratives.

To uncover, explore, and understand technological knowledge that is created by and circulates among African American people, it is essential to lessen the emphasis on examining larger institutional structures. One cannot gain much intellectual purchase by examining traditional institutions of scientific and technological production and development, because they are traditionally invested in the racialized structure of American society. When looking at the interconnections between black people, science, and technologies, the location of analysis should be “from below.” It is critical to examine how African American people, overtly and tacitly, have reacted, interacted with, resisted, and fought the systems of oppression enforced through the application and use of science and technology, as well as how African Americans have contributed to their own oppression and that of others. By gaining a more complete understanding of the varied experiences of African Americans with science and technology, it is possible to understand how African Americans, as culturally and historically constituted subjects, become scientific and technological agents for their own benefit and demise. By focusing on the disenfranchised margins and uncovering the multiple layers of communities and their interactions with science and technology, new research will make productive interventions into our collective understanding of the connections between race, science, and technology.


1Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967),171-172.