Technology in and of itself is not at fault; it’s much too simple to say that gunpowder or agricultural machinery or fiber optics has been the enemy of an entire group of people. A certain machine is put to work in a certain way — the purpose for which it was designed. The people who design the machines are not intent on unleashing chaos; they are usually trying to accomplish a task more quickly, cleanly, or cheaply, following the imperative of innovation and efficiency that has ruled Western civilization since the Renaissance.
Yet another aspect of technology’s great cost to blacks should be considered: while the Gilded Age roared through the last part of the nineteenth century and Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and others made the first great American fortunes as they wired, tracked, and fueled the new industrial society, blacks were mired in Reconstruction and its successor, Jim Crow. This circumscription limited their life prospects and, worse, those of their descendants. As the great American technopolis was built, with its avatars from Thomas Edison to Alfred P. Sloan to Bill Gates, blacks were locked out, politically and socially — and they have found it difficult to work their way in.
Blacks have traditionally been poorly educated — look at the crisis in urban public schools — and deprived of the sorts of opportunities that create the vision necessary for technological ambition. Black folkways in America, those unspoken, largely unconscious patterns of thought and belief about what is possible that guide aspiration and behavior, thus do not encompass physics and calculus. Becoming an engineer — unlike becoming a doctor or a lawyer or an insurance salesman — has not been seen as a way up in the segregated black community. These folkways developed in response to very real historical conditions, to the limited and at best ambivalent interactions between blacks and technology in this country. Folkways, the “consciousness of the race,” change at a slower pace than societal conditions do — and so a working strategy can turn into a crippling blindness and self-limitation.
Some blacks — like my father, who worked for nearly fifty years in a factory that, ironically, recently moved from Illinois to the low-wage Mississippi he left as a boy — have been able to operate within these narrow parameters, to accept slow and steady progress while positioning their children to jump into the mainstream. But blacks are also Americans, and as such are subject not only to notions of a steady rise but also to the restless ambition that seems a peculiarly American disease. Not channeled to follow the largely technological possibilities for success in this society, black folkways have instead embraced the sort of magical thinking that is encouraged by the media and corporations whose sole interest in blacks is as consumers.
You, too, can be Michael Jordan or Coolio — just buy the shoes, just have the right look. No need to study, no need to work, the powers that be are against you anyway. Young blacks believe that they have a better chance of becoming Jordan, a combination of genes, will, talent, and family that happens every hundred years, than of becoming Steve Jobs, the builder of two billion-dollar corporations, the first one started with his best friend while tinkering in his garage. They also don’t dream of becoming programmers at Cisco Systems, a low-profile computer giant that hires 5,000 new workers a year and scours the globe to find them. Blacks make up 13 percent of the population in this country, yet in 1995 they earned a shockingly low 1.8 percent of the Ph.D.s conferred in computer science, 2.1 percent of those in engineering, 1.5 percent in the physical sciences, and 0.6 percent in mathematics. As I lamented earlier, the very opportunities that would allow young blacks to vault over decades of injury and neglect into the modern world go unclaimed — even unseen.
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