DECADES before the creation of social media and the birth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, early adopters of the internet were using precursors of email, user forums and the web to organise black communities in the US and beyond and push for racial justice.
In his book Black Software: The internet and racial justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, Charlton D. McIlwain at New York University highlights the lives and histories of those pioneers who explored and used the internet for digital activism, creating a space for the African American community.
McIlwain has made excellent use of his position as the founder of New York University’s centre for critical race and digital studies. In the book, he combines first-person interviews with historical online and offline correspondence and other archive materials to bring the stories and perspectives of these forgotten figures to light.
Over five decades, beginning in the 1960s with the rise of the civil rights movement in the US and the start of the computing revolution, McIlwain traces a path from this “vanguard” to present-day activists, campaigners and organisers.
In the first half of the book we learn how black entrepreneurs, engineers, information technicians, hobbyists, journalists and activists connected with each other, using new technologies as they emerged: bulletin board systems and the Usenet network in the 1970s, file-sharing and CD-ROMs in the 1980s.
The Universal Black Pages, a comprehensive online directory of African American-related internet resources, was launched in July 1994. McIlwain describes its rise and fall, along with websites such as NetNoir and AfroNet. This was an experimental era, which ultimately fell victim to the dotcom bust in 2000.
In the second half of the book, McIlwain delves deeper, back to the origins of the computing revolution, showing how the technology was put to use to “set America’s principles of white supremacy loose to run amuck in new computational systems”.
This culminated, McIlwain argues, in the development of law enforcement applications that applied computing power to areas such as crime analysis, fingerprint identification and resource allocation. We think the use of algorithms by police forces is a new phenomenon; McIlwain describes how these technologies were in use by police forces as early as the mid-1960s.
These information systems and connected databases later developed into automated policing systems and crime prediction tools which “began to lock black people up at skyrocketing and racially disparate rates”.
This was only possible, McIlwain argues, because black people, “by and large, didn’t have access to the technology being used to profile, target, and forecast their tendency toward criminality”. The early computing industry’s lack of diversity and resistance to attempts at inclusion meant that black people were effectively excluded from conversations about, and deprived of access to, the very technology that would go on to shape their lives.
“Black people were not hired as technicians to process the data. Black people certainly did not design the systems… were not at the table to contribute to conversations about how to deploy the outputs,” he writes.
It may have started as “an alien technology destined to… grind them into submission and exert racial power over their entire existence”, but change was ushered in, as members of the African American tech vanguard encouraged others to get online, harnessing the power of the internet to shape their lives.
McIlwain quotes one activist: “We… who were ignored by the industrial revolution, cannot afford to be bypassed by the multimedia communications revolution inherent in the emerging information superhighway… to avoid our continuing characterisation, lamented by [W. E. B.] Du Bois, as an ‘afterthought of modernity’.”
That mention of Du Bois is apposite: this influential African American activist and intellectual had started a movement in the early 1900s to fight racial segregation. Just as the members of McIlwain’s vanguard are little known despite their innovative use of communications technology, so Du Bois’s use of infographics tends to be omitted from accounts of his work to end segregation.
As co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Du Bois is celebrated for his profound essays and books, including the seminal The Souls of Black Folk, and is considered one of the most influential activists for racial justice of the 20th century.
But alongside his famous writings, Du Bois produced an astounding body of infographics to challenge pseudoscientific racism, making visual arguments every bit as powerful as those in his books. The infographics are the subject of an exhibition, W. E. B. Du Bois: Charting black lives, at London’s House of Illustration. This displays, for the first time in the UK, 63 infographics that Du Bois presented at the 1900 Paris Exposition, a world fair.
Du Bois’s charts, graphs and maps, the result of collaboration with African American students he taught at his sociology lab at Atlanta University in Georgia, are beautiful. Visually, they are certainly striking. And then there is what they represent: a radical and stark approach to refuting racism, using facts and statistics to counter white supremacy and challenge and debunk the era’s prevailing racist stereotypes.
Du Bois wanted to prove, to an international audience, the essential equality of African American people. By presenting his own research on the achievements of African Americans in the short time since the emancipation of slaves, Du Bois demonstrated that black culture had flourished even within the extreme constraints of violently enforced racial segregation across the southern states of the US.
The infographics shown at the Paris Exposition presented statistics on issues such as crime, literacy and affluence in Georgia – at the time the US state with the highest African American population. And rather than let us fall into the complacency of thinking that race science no longer exists, the exhibition also features original artwork by Guardian journalist Mona Chalabi. This demonstrates the enduring relevance of Du Bois’s data visualisation methods and the racial inequalities he fought against by updating four of the 1900 infographics with 21st-century data.
Both the exhibition and McIlwain’s book are utterly compelling demonstrations of the contributions black people have made, and struggle to make still, to modern culture.
The work Du Bois began in 1900 with his data visualisations has lasted into the internet age, and the web has become a key venue for conversations about why black lives matter.
Charting black lives
The spiralled graph above illustrates the preponderance of rural inhabitants among the black American population of 1890. The Atlanta University researchers used such visual flourishes sparingly, and to dramatic effect.
One of the favourite weapons in W E B Du Bois’s rhetorical arsenal was the sheer size of the black population of the US. Here, though, it’s the rate at which the whole US population is expanding that stands out most markedly.
This study of the population of the state of Georgia today stands as eloquent testimony of slow but real progress since W E B Du Bois’ day. Divide today’s current population of Georgia on similar ethnic lines, and the two halves of the chart are symmetrical. There are no statistically significant differences in occupation between the two communities.
The visual power of this last chart hardly needs glossing. It also records the varying fortunes of the small free black population prior to emancipation, and the seven years that passed between the official declaration of the end of slavery and its actual termination.
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