Race and Technology

A blog about the intersection of race and technology.

Rounding the Cape: Race and the allure of technological progress

Rounding the Cape:

Race and the Allure of Technological Progress

By Clyde W. Ford

Progress in technology is given. Progress in race relations is not. The last half-century, witness to an explosive rise in technology, has seen no such progress in race relations. From economic inequality to educational inequality to incarceration inequality to policing inequality to outright segregation, by nearly every yardstick applied, The Eisenhower Foundation, in Healing Our Divided Society[1], its fiftieth anniversary report honoring the 1968 Kerner Commission, conceded there is a yawning racial divide in America; and concluded that scant progress had been made in closing this divide.

What's tech got to do it?

Writing in the January 1999 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Anthony Walton made the case concisely, "[t]he history of African-Americans during the past 400 years is traditionally narrated as an ongoing struggle against oppression and indifference on the part of the American mainstream, a struggle charted as an upward arc progressing toward ever more justice and opportunity." Walton goes on to say, "This description is accurate, but there is another, equally true way of narrating that history, and its implications are as frightening for the country as a whole as they are for blacks as a group. The history of African-Americans since the discovery of the New World is the story of their encounter with technology, an encounter that has proved perhaps irremediably devastating to their hopes, dreams, and possibilities."[2]

But technology, the common wisdom proposes, is value-neutral. What built-in evil lurks in the meshing of gears, the spinning of wheels, or the glow of a cellphone or computer screen? What inherently nefarious purpose is found in bits of silicon used for an electronic circuit, or in the electrons shuttling between those bits of silicon? How can technology ever be viewed as thwarting the aspirations of any one group such as Blacks in America? Technology may be used in loathsome ways by certain individuals or groups but technology itself is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Here, the common wisdom is wrong, or at least tragically confused.

Martin Heidegger, the controversial German philosopher, wrote and spoke at length about this question of technology in the post-War era[3]. While some dismiss Heidegger because of his association with the Nazi regime, it may well be that because of this collaboration his insights into technology were so prescient and so profound. Technology, Heidegger put forth, may be neither inherently good nor inherently evil but it is not inherently value-free. Technology is not just a business enterprise, it is a world-view based on the exploitation of human and natural resources.

Those meshing gears were once metal ore extracted from the earth; the rubber on spinning wheels once ran through the veins of trees; the fuel that turns the engines that spin those wheels once lay buried deep underground or under the sea; the glow from cellphone or computer screen comes from liquid crystals fabricated from natural resources, or fabricated by technology that is itself fabricated from natural resources; those bits of silicon that power so much of modern high technology originate from composite minerals found in ninety-percent of the earth's crust before extraction; and, our cellphones, computers, and other technology are manufactured by human beings, often working in harsh conditions in countries far removed from the technology's consumers. Technology exploits human and natural resources for the benefit of some, to the detriment of others.


Along the shores of the Targus River in Lisbon, Portugal there stands now a magnificent one-hundred-seventy-foot steel and cement monument known as the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), erected in 1960 to commemorate the death, five-hundred years earlier, of "Prince Henry the Navigator." Designed as the prow of a huge caravel, the principal ship construction of that age, the padrão features Henry standing at the bow pulpit, and behind him, along what would be the decks of this monumental ship, are thirty-three figures on the east and west sides, commemorating other significant explorers of the age. Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Columbus are there. So, too, is Gomes Eannes de Zurara, who chronicled the rape, pillage, and plunder of the West African coast by these early European explorers[4].

In his hands, Henry holds a replica of a caravel or carrack, a ship whose sailing technology allowed the Portuguese to first round Cape Verde, the westernmost tip of Africa, and safely return. Older, shallower ships, known as cogs plied the Mediterranean for centuries before caravels, but cogs were ill-equipped for the Atlantic. Trade winds made the voyage south from Portugal to West Africa relatively easy, but the return voyage much more difficult and dangerous because cogs had to tack far out to sea—almost as far as the coast of South America—in order to catch prevailing winds affording them a way back to Europe.

Caravels, however, were designed from cogs but built deeper, with three or four masts, and an enlarged cargo space. Caravels handled rough seas better, sailed closer to the wind, and made for shorter and safer return voyages from West Africa. Magellan, da Gama, Columbus, all of the early navigators sailed caravels.

Caravel technology, which enabled the Portuguese to reach West Africa, was designed to extract the human and natural resources of the continent. Little wonder, then, that caravels, with their large holds, carried gold and other precious metals, but also enslaved Africans first to work in Portuguese colonies, then for sale in far-flung ports, notably in the Americas. Caravels ruled the slave trade until replaced by galleons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, even better equipped for their mission as slavers.


Throughout the centuries of slavery in America until today, technology has collided with race. By the late 1700s, the agrarian economy of the southern United States, built on slave labor, lay faltering and the economic wisdom of slavery lay in question. For reasons of geography and the economics of production, cotton, tobacco, sugar, indigo, and rice, the principal cash crops of the South, all required increasingly more money to produce, and returned increasingly less profit to southern planters. In particular, cotton plantations found themselves paying more and more for the upkeep of their slaves, with less and less returned from the sale of their cotton. This economic equation changed dramatically with the introduction of a new technology—the cotton gin in 1793, to which Eli Whitey lay patent claim.

Whitney's gin could process fifty pounds of cotton lint a day—separating cotton fibers from seed. What southern planters now needed was an inexpensive way to grow and pick cotton to feed the hungry, new machines to produce the raw materials for northern textile mills, who then exported their textiles worldwide. For that, the South turned once again to the sale and purchase of slaves. Suddenly, cotton became wildly profitable, and a technology some hoped would save labor and thereby reduce the southern reliance on slavery, had just the opposite effect. The 1790 census recorded approximately 700,000 slaves in the South. By the 1860 census, that number had increased six-fold to nearly four-million human beings held in bondage[5].

With Emancipation, and the advent of automated cotton-picking machines in the later nineteenth century, the need for a huge labor force dwindled. Blacks, eager now for new opportunities and escape from the brutality of Jim Crow, headed for northern cities en masse in what is referred to as the Great Migration. Yet again, an advance in technology resulted in a decay in race relations as these internally displaced persons often traded the overt racism of the South, for the subtle, yet equally devastating, racism of the North—lack of housing, lack of educational opportunities, lack of health care, lack of jobs—the very same issues contributing to racial inequalities to this day.


This peculiar relationship, where a rise in technology precipitated a fall in race relations, only accelerated with the senescence of the Industrial Age and the dawn of the Digital Age. Digital technology witnessed many early achievements directly at the expense of people of color, and others deemed racially undesirable. Punched card technology led the first wave of this digital revolution, and IBM led the creation, development and implementation of punched card technology.

In the early 1920's, Thomas J. Watson, once a leader of National Cash Register's unscrupulous and ruthless henchmen known as the "knockout gang"—"We do not buy out, we knock out"—took over the helm of a company which then went by the name of the Computing Tabulating Recording Company (CTR), soon changing it to the International Business Machines Company. The "T" in CTR stood for the Tabulating Machine Company, one of four companies swooped up by businessman and war-profiteer Charles Flint in 1911. Established, and once owned by German wunderkind Herman Hollerith, the Tabulating Machine Company developed and manufactured punched cards and punched card equipment. Hollerith's erratic genius led to the adoption of his punched card technology by the U.S. Census Bureau at the turn of the century. Hollerith's technology soon became the worldwide standard for counting and maintaining information on national populations. But with the Tabulating Machine Company sold, and Hollerith no longer involved, Watson realized this technology could do far more than take national censuses. So, in 1928 Watson focused the attention of his young firm on solving the problem of eugenics.

Eugenics flourished in America at the beginning of the twentieth century. Carnegies, Rockefellers, Kelloggs, Harrimans, Roosevelts, this so-called "science of race" brought together America's rich and famous in a movement to breed pure blond-haired, blue-eyed "Nordic stock," the eugenicists sought-after ideal. Eugenicists desired to eliminate the bloodlines of undesirables such as Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Irish, and those mentally or physically ill.

Eugenics promoted thinly veiled racism under the guise of pseudoscience. Eugenicists proposed several tools to cull America of undesirable human beings: sterilization, birth control, incarceration, miscegenation laws, immigration restrictions, and even death. In the early 1900s, as many as 30 states had passed eugenics laws that allowed for forced sterilization or restricted intermarriage between individuals of different races. American eugenicists, led by Dr. Charles Davenport, elevated their movement internationally with the help of prominent eugenicists in Germany. In 1926, Davenport, head of the Eugenics Research Association, an outgrowth of the Eugenics Record Organization, which he also headed, received funding for a two-year study of "pure-blooded negroes," whites, and their undesirable mixed-race offspring.In 1928, Davenport chose the island of Jamaica for the study.

To identify mixed-race individuals in Jamaica, Davenport required a robust system of collecting, storing, and analyzing copious amounts of information. IBM's punch cards and Hollerith machines provided just what Davenport needed. With Watson's newly minted company eager for the business, IBM engineers worked with the ERO at the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, to design a punch card format for collecting all the information needed to report on racial characteristics. Watson's engineers also worked out the details of adjusting the various sorters, tabulators, and printers to provide Davenport and the ERO with the output they required.

Thanks to IBM's assistance, the success of the Jamaica Project allowed Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, and Davenport, to announce plans for a global study to identify mixed raced individuals as a first step toward their elimination in favor of "racially pure stock."[6] (In a tragic coda to this early story of eugenics, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was still enmeshed in the controversy over eugenics as recently as January 2019, this time through the disgraceful racist utterances of Nobel laureate James D. Watson, co-founder of the DNA double-helix and one of the laboratory's longtime fellows, whom they stripped of his honorary titles[7])

Five short years after the success of the Jamaica Project, Thomas J. Watson saw an even larger, grander opportunity for his infant company, this one also based on race. In 1933, Watson threw the knowledge and resources of IBM behind Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich.

Hitler rebooted eugenics. Armed with statistical data courtesy of IBM equipment and engineers, Nazis went in pursuit of a master Aryan race—tall, strong, blond-haired, blue-eyed, superior intellectually and physically. Sterilization came first, to weed out Jews, the physically undesirable (those with mental or physical illnesses and infirmities deemed unacceptable) and the socially undesirable (homosexuals, pedophiles, the Romany, those who came into repeated conflict with the government). With data collected from medical offices, insurance companies, and employers, Dehomag, IBM's German subsidiary, created a punch card schema to record information about the physical, mental and social traits of German citizens in addition to the information already on-file about who was, and who was not, a Jew. In 1934, Germany performed 62,400 forced sterilizations based on this punch card data. By 1935 that number rose to 71,700. Ultimately, Nazi race scientists decided that the information available from IBM punch cards should be the basis of a more permanent solution—not merely determining who should undergo sterilization, but who should live and who should die.[8]

For his service to Nazi Germany, Hitler created the "The Merit Cross of the German Eagle with Star," a medal festooned with swastikas, which he pinned on Watson in 1937.

But IBM's expertise in automating horrific, race-driven agendas did not stop with the defeat of the Third Reich. Not long after the end of World War II, IBM began anew in South Africa, where another regime arose and required digital technology's dark arts to suppress those it deemed undesirable. Besides, the needs of the apartheid regime were thoroughly known to IBM—use digital technology to categorize and identify the population in pursuit of the brutal oppression of some in favor of the advancement of others. IBM, now under a new Thomas J. Watson, the founder's son, pursued a strategy developed in Jamaica and perfected in Nazi Germany, in support of apartheid. Only this time, with an arsenal of digital computers replacing older punched card equipment, IBM's strategy proved even more lethal.

A system of passbooks governed apartheid. Outside of the Bantustans, White, Indian, and Colored South Africans required a passbook known as the "book of life." Inside Black areas, residents required a national identification pass, known colloquially as the dompas (dumb pass) to comply with government laws. In South Africa, with a majority of 10 million Black Africans and a minority of 6 million Whites, Indians, and Coloreds, combined, this two-tiered system of passes and racial identification presented a complex administrative and bureaucratic nightmare for the government.

Enter IBM, once again, with digital technology in the service of racial classification and racial domination.

Beginning in 1952, IBM leased Hollerith machines to the South African government through its South African subsidiary, much as it had with the Third Reich, to tabulate results of the 1951 census.[9] That census became the basis for determining the racial category to which a person belonged. In 1965, IBM bid unsuccessfully for the contract to create the passbooks designated for Blacks, but the company won the bid to create the "book of life," a passbook required of the non-Black population.[10] However, by 1978, IBM had seized control of the business of creating and maintaining passbooks both inside and outside of the Bantustans.

With no research or manufacturing facilities in South Africa, IBM, from its New York headquarters, designed the hardware and software that automated South Africa's complex system of apartheid—writing the racial classification software, designing the database storage for racial classification, and constructing the equipment, such as printers, used to create the required passbooks. Through its South African subsidiary, IBM transferred this hardware and software to relevant South African governmental agencies, trained those agencies in the use of IBM equipment, consulted on and made fixes to apartheid software, and kept IBM equipment in good repair.[11]

Separation of a country's population by race is illegal under international law. In knowingly supporting South Africa's system of apartheid, IBM appears to have directly contravened this and other international laws, many enacted after the Nuremberg trials and the defeat of Nazi Germany specifically for the protection of individual human rights.[12]

Thirty years after apartheid, sixty years after Thomas J. Watson Sr.'s death, seventy years after the Holocaust, and nearly one hundred years after eugenics and IBM's founding, the company is still engaged in the application of the latest digital technology for racial classification.[13] In the years after the 9/11 attacks in New York City, as part of their major involvement in the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (LMSI), which installed thousands of CCTV cameras around the city, IBM used secret camera footage of thousands of unknowing New Yorkers, provided by the New York City Police Department, to refine IBM facial recognition software to search for and identify people by "hair color, facial hair, and skin tone."[14] It's a painful, cruel irony that this IBM software is now known as "Watson Visual Recognition."[15]

Rick Kjeldsen, a former IBM researcher working on facial recognition, provided a window into the minds of several generations of IBM engineers involved with racial classification technology.

"We were certainly worried about where the heck this was going," he said in an interview with The Intercept. "There were a couple of us that were always talking about this, you know, 'If this gets better, this could be an issue.'"[16]

Get better? Facial recognition did, as once again technology help to 'round the Cape.


[1] Fred Harris and Alan Curtis. Healing Our Divided Society. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018).

[2] Anthony Walton. "Technology versus African-Americans" in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 283, No. 1 (January 1999), p. 14.

[3] Martin Heidegger. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013).

[4] Gomes Eannes de Zurara. Crónica do Descobrimento e Conquista da Guiné (Paris, 1841). Edgar Prestage, trans., The Chronicle of Discovery and Conquest of Guinea. Vols. 1 and 2. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1896-1899).

[5] Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung. Historical Census Statistics On Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, For Large Cities And Other Urban Places In The United StatesHistorical Census Statistics On Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, For Large Cities And Other Urban Places In The United States. Working Paper No. 76. (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 2005).

[6] Edwin Black. War Against the Weak, p. 292.

[7] Meilan Solly, "DNA Pioneer James Watson Loses Honorary Titles over Racist Comments," Smithsonian, January 15, 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/dna-pioneer-james-watson-loses-honorary-titles-over-racist-comments-180971266/.

[8] See Edwin Black. IBM and the Holocaust. (Washington, DC: Dialog Press, 2001). 

[9] Michael Kwet, "Apartheid in the Shadows: The USA, IBM and South Africa's Digital Police State," CounterPunch, May 3, 2017, https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/05/03/apartheid-in-the-shadows-the-usa-ibm-and-south-africas-digital-police-state.

[10] Kwet, "Apartheid in the Shadows."

[11]Balintulo v. Ford Motors Co., IBM, General Motors Corp, No. 14–4104 (2nd Cir. July 27, 2015), https://ccrjustice.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/06/InReApartheid_PlAppellantsBrief_1-28-15.pdf.

[12] Balintulo v. Ford Motors Co.

[13] George Joseph and Kenneth Lipp, "IBM Used NYPD Surveillance Footage to Develop Technology That Lets Police Search by Skin Color," The Intercept, September 6, 2018, https://theintercept .com/2018/09/06/nypd-surveillance-camera-skin-tone-search/.

[14] Joseph and Lipp, "IBM Used NYPD Surveillance Footage to Develop Technology That Lets Police Search by Skin Color."

[15] IBM, "How IBM Is Improving Watson Visual Recognition Capabilities," March 15, 2018, https://www.ibm.com/blogs/watson/2018/03/how -ibm-is-improving-watson-visual-recognition-capabilities/.

[16] Rick Kjeldsen, quoted in Joseph and Lipp, "IBM Used NYPD Surveillance Footage to Develop Technology That Lets Police Search by Skin Color."

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