Race and Technology

A blog about the intersection of race and technology.

Being the First Black Software Engineer Took Its Toll

I wish I could say that my father never relented to the pressures he felt as the first black software engineer in America. However, that would not be true. Sometimes, he turned the racism he faced at IBM inward, blaming the color of his skin for being passed over for promotions or forced to train others who would then become his superiors. This particularly insidious form of racism, is often referred to as "internalized racism," because an individual like my father takes the bigotry and prejudice projected onto him by the outside world, and turns it inward on himself. For my father, this "internalized racism" took the form of acute awareness of skin color.

My father described himself as the "black sheep" of his family, which he meant quite literally. In the 1800s, my great-grandfather, Thomas McLeod of South Carolina, who had Scottish ancestry and was perhaps a slave holder or the child of a union between a slave holder and a slave, fathered children with my great-grandmother, Abbie Davis. From that union came several generations of my father's family, some fair enough to "pass" for White. My father believed that his darker skin placed him at a disadvantage. It also made him perpetually distrustful of others.

Skin color conveyed intelligence for him. Lighter skin meant greater intellect, darker skin the opposite. My father read widely of such racist views in books and articles by authors such as Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray, and he did nothing to counter what he read.

Jensen sat on the board of the German neo-Nazi journal Neue Anthropologie (New Anthropology) published by the Society for Biological Anthropology, Eugenics, and the Study of Behavior. His work, which set the tenor for many articles published in the journal, is often quoted by White nationalists today. Jensen worked actively and closely with American scientists and business leaders to oppose and reverse efforts to effect school integration and affirmative action. His statements are chilling:

There are intelligence genes, which are found in populations in different proportions, somewhat like the distribution of blood types. The number of intelligence genes seems to be lower, over-all, in the black population than in the white. As to the effect of racial mixing, nobody has yet performed experiments that reveal its relative effect on I.Q. If the racial mixture weren't there, it is possible that the I.Q. differences between blacks and whites would be even greater. I think such studies should be done to lay this uncertainty to rest once and for all.[1]

It has been shown that The Bell Curve, coauthored by Charles Murray, relied on "tainted" sources linked to eugenicists, White supremacists, and Nazi sympathizers.[2] Yet Murray still stands by his equally chilling racist and misogynistic findings, though couched in a scholar's lofty language:

The professional consensus is that the United States has experienced dysgenic pressures throughout either most of the century (the optimists) or all of the century (the pessimists). Women of all races and ethnic groups follow this pattern in similar fashion. There is some evidence that blacks and Latinos are experiencing even more severe dysgenic pressures than whites, which could lead to further divergence between whites and other groups in future generations.[3]

Even with the theories of these authors debunked, and their reasoning shown to be corrupt, my father argued in their favor, despite all the contrary evidence of his own substantial intellect and his many fine accomplishments. His vociferous support of this self-inflicted racial wound was a constant source of friction between us.

When I was in high school, a typical afternoon would find me parked in New York City's Schomburg Library, devouring books on Black history. I savored the accounts of men and women whose greatness had not found its way into the texts forced on me at school. Then I'd come home to a man lamenting being born with dark skin.

My father even ranked my sister Claudia's children—his own grandchildren—by the color of their skin, whispering to each a selective message of their inferior or superior intellect.

There's a long history of race and skin color used as a determinant of intellect, and a means to control people with darker skins. Some have pointed to a document from 1712, attributed to a slave owner named Willie Lynch as a source of this practice during slavery. But this "Willie Lynch Letter," may actually be a hoax.[4] So perhaps a better place to start is with the work of Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring.

As Europeans encountered other peoples around the world—Africans, East Indians, and Orientals—an ordering of traits, especially intelligence, unfolded: white-yellow-brown-black, with white, of course, the most intelligent and black the least. Von Sömmerring, a German physician in the late eighteenth century, dissected the cadavers of African Americans returning with the British to Europe at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War: loyalist Blacks, many of whom had been slaves in the American colonies but then fought with the British in exchange for their freedom. Von Sömmerring, employing pseudoscientific volumetric measurements of the cranial capacity of European and African skulls, claimed to show that Black Americans, with less cranial volume than Europeans and by virtue of their African ancestry, lacked the intellect of Europeans, Asians, or East Indians. Black Americans, von Sömmerring concluded, should simply resign themselves to their fate and live within a social environment of permanent inferiority.[5]

Von Sömmerring was, of course, one of many before him, and many after, who claimed that skin color determined intelligence. Since von Sömmerring's time, every decade or so some new theory emerges claiming to prove the connection between the two. The rise of eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s is an iteration of this assertion; the work of Charles Murray and Arthur Jensen, or the rantings of James D. Watson, another. An op-ed in the New York Times in 2018 resurfaced the topic again, this time purportedly based on the latest DNA findings.[6]

No matter that each resurfacing of the claim linking race and intelligence is debunked or disproven, this seems a never-ending debate with one clear effect: a majority of White Americans believe that Black Americans are lazier and less intelligent than Whites, and they believe that Blacks do little to change their dismal economic circumstances.[7] Sadly, recent polls show that the percentage of the American population holding such beliefs is growing, rather than shrinking, over time.[8]

This is the climate of racist thinking that my father imbibed so deeply that it turned into his own self-loathing. This climate also produced great stress, which manifested in my father as a tremor in his right hand that interfered with him writing but not with him playing the piano or violin.

It's a cruel irony that a Black man was hired into a company which used it's technology in support of eugenics, the Holocaust, and apartheid.[9] Watson and his IBM did not create my father's wound of color, but working at IBM, with its long history of technology in the service of racial purity and oppression, appears to have never allowed that wound to heal. My father's belief in the importance of skin color in determining one's destiny only grew stronger over the years of his employment. IBM's dark history, however unconscious, seems to have gotten under my father's skin.

An adapted excerpt from the book Think Black by Clyde W. Ford, used with permission of Amistad Press, a division of HarperCollins.


[1] Lee Edson, "Jensenism, n. The Theory That I.Q. Is Largely Determined by Genes," New York Times Magazine, August 31, 1969, 40.

[2] Charles Lane, "The Tainted Sources of 'The Bell Curve,'" New York Review of Books, December 1, 1994, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1994/12/01/the-tainted-sources-of-the-bell-curve/.

[3] Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).

[4] While I quoted the Willie Lynch Letter in Think Black, scholarly research points to the letter being a hoax. See https://longreads.com/2018/05/02/the-enduring-legacy-of-the-willie-lynch-hoax/. I have since disavowed this letter, see http://thinkblackthebook.com/index.php/blog/the-willie-lynch-letter-may-be-a-hoax.

[5] Stefan Goodwin, Africa in Europe. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), 57.

[6] David Reich, "How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of 'Race,'" op-ed, New York Times, March 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/23/opinion/sunday/genetics-race.html.

[7] American National Election Study (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan, 2012).

[8] General Social Survey (GSS) (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago National Opinion Research Center, 2016).

[9] See, for example, "My father was IBM's first black software engineer. The racism he fought persists in the high-tech world today," my op-ed in the LA Times. September 23, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-09-20/ibm-nazi-germany-tech-racism-father, or my blog post, "'Rounding the Cape: Race and the allure of technological progress," August 24, 2019. http://thinkblackthebook.com/index.php/blog/slaves-or-servants
First Black Poet of the Digital Age?
The "Willie Lynch Letter"--A Hoax?


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Thursday, 17 October 2019