From racial profiling to #BlackLivesMatter: Technology, oppression and expression

One of the original uses of networking tech were attempts at racial profiling and predictive policing, author Charlton McIlwain says.

New book examines African Americans' complex relationship with computing technology

In this Aug. 20, 2014, file photo, protesters march in the street as lightning flashes in the distance in Ferguson, Mo. Michael Brown's death on Aug. 9, 2014, at the hands of a white Missouri police officer stands as a seismic moment of race relations in America. The fledgling Black Lives Matter movement found its voice, police departments fell under intense scrutiny, progressive prosecutors were elected and court policies revised. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File) (The Associated Press)

In August, 2014, a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The outrage the followed coalesced into the Black Lives Matter movement, which shone a spotlight on the police and wider society's racist perception of African Americans and crime.

But #BlackLivesMatter also grew out of a complex and often oppressive relationship between computing technology and America's black population, dating back half a century.

During the 1960s, not only were Americans of African descent excluded from pioneering computer engineering programs at universities, but they were unfairly targeted by early networking programs developed by U.S. technology companies.

But the good news is that despite that oppression, black Americans were ultimately able to use technology to bring that oppression and other issues of race into the public spotlight.

That's the message from Charlton McIlwain's new book, Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter.

McIlwain, who is a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, spoke to Spark's Nora Young about his research for the book.

He discovered that despite the challenge of gaining entry to new programs at universities like MIT, African Americans were able to leverage the new technology to create early online sites like NetNoir and the AfroNet, where people from across the country could share stories. 

Charlton McIlwain is a researcher, academic and author with a focus on the role of race and media in politics and social life. (NYU)

"They could connect to someone across the country, or in the middle of the country, or even up through Canada and meet someone they did not know, but knew that they shared a similar experience being a person of African descent—and that was just incredibly important to them."

However, McIlwain said the birth of widespread computer technology in the U.S. grew, in part, from a belief that technology could solve social problems, particularly the crime that was seen to be associated with unrest and protest during the civil-rights movement.

"African-Americans were protesting, speaking out in defense of their rights, and gaining civil rights. You see this clash of the civil rights movement on one hand and the development of computing in the computing industry on the other—and those had very specific consequences at a moment where President Johnson said I want to build this task force whose primary issue will be solving our problem with crime."

What resulted, McIlwain argues, was the development of networks of databases that were the earliest forms of racial profiling and so-called predictive policing.


"This first meeting of computing and civil rights ended in building what we now see as these massive surveillance systems that are equipped and enabled to predict crime and profile suspects based on race, and really end up in the over-policing and over-incarceration of African Americans," he said.

But he also points out that African Americans were able to use networking technology to change the narrative, especially beginning with the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.

In the aftermath of Brown's death, witnesses, friends and other members of the African American community took to social media en masse to provide an unsanitized description of what happened.

"What you got was the narrative of a black teenage victim who was murdered at the hands of a white police officer, who was overzealous and too quick to meet what was a simple moment with the most extreme violence."

That contrasted with decades of news narratives that painted African American men as dangerous and violent, he said.

"So to see a story emerge from Ferguson in those first few hours that was really headlined, 'Black teenager Michael Brown victim of white police officer',  I think was astounding. And it was astounding because the large media companies that came to cover the story picked up that narrative."

That was the genesis of the black Lives Matter movement, which was able to expose Michael Brown's shooting as more evidence of racism permeating all aspects of society, he said.

"That resounded with the American public, both black and otherwise."