“I’ll say it again: it is the same thing and it is that thing that we simply refuse to talk about. Whether we’re talking about elections or we’re talking about technology. And that is the question of race.”
is the author of the new book Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, From the Afronet to Black Lives Matter, Charlton McIlwain is Vice Provost for Faculty Engagement & Development at New York University and Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication. His work focuses on the intersections of computing technology, race, inequality, and racial justice activism. In addition to Black Software, McIlwain has authored Racial Formation, Inequality & the Political Economy of Web Traffic, in the journal Information, Communication & Society, and co-authored, with Deen Freelon and Meredith Clark, the recent report Beyond the Hashtags: Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, and the Online Struggle for Offline Justice. He recently testified before the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services about the impacts of automation and artificial intelligence on the financial services sector.
- Black Software
- Resources on Race x Tech: The Center for Critical Race & Digital Studies
- Some other recent writing: Silicon Valley’s cocaine problem shaped our racist tech
- The Three Civil Rights–Era Leaders Who Warned of Computers and Racism
Kim Crayton: Hello, everyone. And welcome to today’s episode of the #CauseAScene podcast. My guest today is Charlton McIlwain. I knew it. See? It happens, it happens people—you know, I screw this up all the time. And pronouns are he/him. So this gentleman I have been wanting on the show since one of the fabulous Black researchers—I can’t even remember which one because I’ve had so many on—females—when I asked him, I’m like, “who—what men are doing this?” and your name popped up. It probably was Ruha Benjamin. I believe it may have been her because she gave me a list of people. So, you and I have been trying to get this schedule for a while. You have been absolutely busy because of your new book, so I’ll stop talking and I’ll let you introduce yourself.
Charlton D. McIlwain: Alright, my name is Charlton McIlwain. I’m a professor of media culture communication here at New York University—NYU where I’m also vice provost for faculty engagement and development.
Kim: OK, so we’re gonna start with two questions, as always. Why is it important to cause a scene? And how are you causing a scene?
Charlton: Well, I think it’s important to cause a scene—number one because that’s the only way that things change, so to disrupt the status quo… to make sure that what we’re doing is what we’re supposed to be doing. If not, to raise people’s attention to the fact that we need to be doing something differently and we cause a scene to make ourselves visible and make sure that people have not forgotten that we are here, that we have wants, that we have requests, that we have demands.
Kim: And how are you causing a scene?
Charlton: Well, I won’t get into all of the, of the ways I am, some of them probably not fit from the show. But I will say…
Kim: OK, let me stop you right there. And this is an adult show so say whatever the hell you want to. These are grown people. They need to hear the truth, so I just want to stop and let you know that. So go ahead.
Charlton: Alright. Alright. Well, I cause a scene in two ways. I’m an academic. I’m a researcher. I am a higher education leader. And so that’s where I try to cause a scene most recently through my new book, Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice From the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, and I also try to cause a scene at my institution and in higher education, where I try to call attention to the ways that we need to do better in terms of who we offer educational opportunity to, who is prepared to be successful within the academy and beyond.
Kim: OK, so, this, hopefully we can get this to air before… there are some guests that come on that come on right at the right time. And so this is on a Monday. The next Tuesday is Super Tuesday. So I really want this episode to—hopefully, my producer and I can get this out. So on this coming Wednesday, so we can have some conversation because I want to start by reading a passage just out of—a paragraph out of the book Black Software. It’s in the introduction, page 7:
But Black Software is also a story about how computing technology was built and developed to keep Black America docile and—in its place, disproportionately disadvantaged, locked up, and marked for life. This is the story that I unravel in book two. It speaks to the nefarious ways those in power use computing technology to destroy Black agency by nullifying Black people’s hopes and dreams, aspirations, human potential, and political interest and limiting the heights we are meant to achieve. This story’s shockwaves reverberate and still define our present day.
You even had to say “mm” on that ’cause I…mm. Yeah, so one of the reasons I want to… I’m so happy… I’m never upset or discourage when a guest has to reschedule and all these other things ’cause I found out that the, the episodes for the recordings happen when they’re supposed to happen. And so one of the reasons I really want this to come out before Super Tuesday is we just saw in South Carolina how [Joe] Biden— and this is not an endorsement.
This is just talking about the reality of numbers. Everybody in tech always loves to do the quantitative. We don’t, we don’t love—we don’t want to play around with the qualitative that actually brings in nuances to stuff. But let’s just talk about—let’s get, you know, tickle your lil’ fancies right now. We only talk about quantitative data and quantitative data says “Black folx don’t trust y’all, don’t trust you in the voting booth, and whether those voters in South Carolina had a problem with Biden, they’re going with what they fuckin’ know.” So. [Laughter]
Kim: And this is where you get the pushback, you get the… people keep telling, we have been here, whether it’s [Donald] Trump or whoever. We’ve been here before. What’s different is white people have never experienced this kind of anxiety.
This is how we learned to live. We have coping mechanisms, it’s very unhealthy as hell. But it is what it is. This how we’ve got here. So I read that passage because I’m so sick of people wantin’ to talk about “tech is not biased,” want to talk about… want to be so quick to extrapolate the human out of things… this past Saturday, South Carolina showed what it’s like when qualitative data—because people were ignoring the qualitative data.
Everybody’s looking at the polls and everybody’s shocked. Black folx weren’t shocked. We weren’t shocked. We’ve been saying—we thought we… yeah. Y’all started with Iowa and New Hampshire. We ain’t there. [Laughter] So talk to… I know I said a lot, but know that we’re just talking. So speak to whatever parts of that you feel like speaking to.
Charlton: Well, they are strangely related. I’m like you. You know, timing happens for a reason and so glad to finally make this happen and it’s probably the right time. I think the thread that you started is a good show of that. I’m reminded of Congressman William Lacy Clay Sr. who was one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus back in late sixties—early seventies. And I’m reminded of a statement that he said that was part of a book that he wrote a little bit later on that was called Just Permanent Interests.
And what he said was that Black people have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests. And I think that is part of what you were speaking to about the realities of South Carolina. That is, look, we all… and white folx look on and say, “Hey, we’re all Democrats and therefore we are aligned and may see things this way or that way”. Whereas folx say… “no. Actually, we are not.” and part of that is because we are reading our experience as a historical experience and not, as you said, one that begins today with this election with the previous primaries so on and so forth.
Kim: And for most of these individuals, let’s be honest, 2016 was the first time they were ever like, “Oh, my God, there’s still racism. Oh.” So yeah, they don’t have much of a history to draw on.
Charlton: Exactly. And that I think that historical component, which is to say, “Look, we Black folx—people of color—live with this reality every day and for all of our history,” is a way of saying that this permeates every facet of our life and everything that we touch, whether it’s elections or technology.
And so when we go back to the 1960s, and where that quote that you read from the book began, I think that was in part a sort of significant expression of this reality, which is: when new computing technology came onto the scene, there were Black folx who were not a part of what was going on. We were not a part of largely the folx that sat around a table and said, “What will this new technology be for? What will we do with it? It gives us an immense power so how will we use that power?” Our voices were not, by and large, part of those conversations.
But for those who were trying to speak to the conversation at the time—these were civil rights folx and otherwise—said, “Look, I may not know about the technology itself—I may not have an engineering degree from MIT, but what I do know is that what drives America is anti-Black racism, and I know that this new technology more than likely is going to be used to support that particular reality—that status quo that keeps certain people above others.” And so that’s a large part of what I found and what continues to permeate, I think, our discussion about race and tech and other parts that these things touch from elections and politics and policies more broadly from the sixties ’til now. There is that, at base, that systemic, that structural racism that influences—permeates—influences every aspect of our reality.
Kim: OK so I want to make sure no one missed this. So what I quoted from the book is something that people were talking about in 1960, people. This is not new. And this is why I tell you “Stop being so damn lazy and become a disciple of history.” Because we’ve been here before. This is not new.
So could you speak—so I love when I have historians on here because they connect dots for people who think “Oh, this is brand new.” So I just pulled a paragraph out of the introduction. Can you speak more broadly or more specifically—whichever way you want to go—about the fact that these conversations were happening in the sixties. I want to give some context.
I want people to understand that Black people have been talking about this and the problem of anti-Blackness in tech for a while. It’s nothing new.
Charlton: Indeed. And I’ll talk about it in this way. Last year, a little more than a year ago, The Intercept did an investigative news piece about New York City and about the NYPD. And the gist of the story that they uncovered was that the NYPD was sharing its data that came from all the cameras that are spread across the city and capturing everyone, their movements, their faces, et cetera. So that NYPD was sharing this data with IBM for the purpose of building a facial recognition system that could identify criminal suspects by skin color.
And so that was the gist and the big reveal of the story. That this was happening and that this was messed up to say the very least. The second part of the reveal in that story was this has been happening. That is, this collusion between the NYPD and IBM for five years that they had been working together to build this system.
And I remember when that story came out and I remember chuckling to myself and thinking, “You missed the whole damn story because this is not a five year story it’s a 50-year one.” And when I said that, I meant very literally and specifically about the ties since the early mid-sixties between IBM and the NYPD to deliberately answer the question, “What can I use these new computer systems for?” And then thinking about the NYPD and other law enforcement who said and recognized: “Well, if computers are meant to solve problems then what is the greatest problem we have?”
And for law enforcement that essentially was Black people. We were the nation’s problem in 1960 when we thought about crime, or we thought about violence, when we thought about uprisings in the city, when we thought about threats to the status quo and America’s racial order. Black people personified that threat.
And so it was at that time with very specifically law enforcement, said “Here’s our problem IBM—and other computing companies but really IBM—what kind of solution can you build for us?” And it didn’t take them 20 years. It didn’t take them 30 or 50. It took them all of a year or two to begin to design and ultimately perfect what they began to call in the mid 1960s Criminal Justice Information Systems.
These were connected databases that provided the ability for law enforcement to identify, to target, to surveil, to profile people, based on race. And then to begin to start to do all of these things that we know of now as predictive policing, facial recognition, all of those things are a direct line from these early moments in the 1960s, up to all these varying systems that we have today that do the same thing. How do we deal with and try to curtail what our national problems are and Black folx still find that, as it was in 1960s, we’re still the nation’s problem.
Kim: Mm, OK, so I want to speak to that—I don’t know if that’s a noun or a verb—the nation’s problem. I know it sounds like a great book title. ‘Cause I want to speak on two separate things and you can decide which one of these paths you want to take.
One is the path of how do you address—particularly the default white supremacist system that is in tech—how do you challenge the fact that you know, based on history, that the nation’s problem is Black people and that everything that we’ve created—whether it’s been intentional or not—has been to address that problem and it negatively impacts Blacks.
Because everyone wants to act like tech is some utopia. And refuse to dig deeper into the fact that—and you’re saying this is at the root of it—as I’m always talking about white supremacy is at the root of all of this. That’s one lane we can go down, OK. So I’ma give you options. The other lane to go down is with—again when I’m talking about Super Tuesday— with politicians who want to talk about class but never want to talk about the nation’s problem, which they have to know is the issue.
So it’s like I see all these people—and again, it’s not about endorsements. You guys know. I told you none of your fucking business who I’m voting for so stop asking—but my thing is, I have yet to see a fundamentally antiracist campaign now that any person of color of substance is out of this race.
So, yes, [Elizabeth] Warren is speaking to things, but for me, she seems to be parroting what the Black women around her are saying. I don’t see that Warren has any history—again, history—of coming to any of this before she decided to run for this race. Tom Steyer—totally surprising— he is the white dude who was talking deeply about these things. But what did he have to lose? He’s a billionaire, you know, it’s like “I’m in here. I can pay for my own campaign. I can say what I want to.”
I don’t care what Bernie [Sanders] may or may not have done in the sixties. That is the 60s. And I talk about—Oh, my God and people know I love putting labels on things because they help my ADHD mind—so when you say the nation’s problem is Black people that just totally opened up a whole… So I did a video about why Medicare for all will cause harm. And I gave three reasons. One is there are physicians being trained today, I mean, not old school dudes, but people who are being trained today who believe that Blacks have a thicker epidermis and that we can tolerate more pain. This is why Blacks did not initially get caught up in the opioid epidemic ’cause they were not prescribing them to us.
We’re only involved in the epidemic now because of the illegal substance, you know, it’s on the street. That’s one. That has nothing to do with having health care for all. So two is when they doing the quantitative and the qualitative data. When you extrapolate out class, wealth, position… Black women and their babies are in more danger of dying in childbirth than white poor women. And we saw that very clearly in the last four years with Serena [Williams] and Beyonce. If these two women, who are billionaires or married to billionaires, couldn’t figure it out and the physicians didn’t believe that they were in distress, Medicare for all doesn’t do anything for that.
And the third one is just poor folx. I live in a city, you live in a city, where there are great medical services near you. You can easily get, in New York, get to somewhere. If you’re in bum fuck upper New York or somewhere, you can’t get somewhere, how is Medicare for all taking care of that?
These are the things that people don’t want to talk about. And these are the things that just really irk me to no end. How on-the-surface we like to stay. We want to talk—people will talk about how he’s gonna you know, anybody’s gonna fund this. Screw how you’re gonna fund it, my thing is, how are you going to make sure it’s not fundamentally racist from the beginning?
Because we already have Affordable Health Care Act. I live in a state that they opted out of Medicaid. They shouldn’t have been able to opt—that right there says it in itself. So because I’m an entrepreneur, I can’t afford health insurance. But because I can’t afford health insurance, I get a penalty. That’s a penalty on the poor. So even affordable health care that was presented by a Black president caused harm. So until we talking about the systems that are in place, all of this is bullshit to me. I just sit back like can you people really tell me, can someone please give me a path to any of this that fundamentally changes the structures that will automatically, once implemented, further oppress and harm the most vulnerable?
Charlton: Whoo yeah, you said it. I don’t know if I could say it much better. But it is that underlying thread that—and you know, you put this as pursuing two roads and two options to talk about. But they are the same underlying issue.
Kim: OK, I’ma stop you right there ’cause I wanted you to say that. [Laughter] ‘Cause people don’t see it as the same thing, and I really need to see them connect it. It wasn’t me! It was Doctor here, it was Doc! He said it, I didn’t!
Charlton: I’ll say it again. It is the same thing. And it is that thing that we simply refuse to talk about, whether we’re talking about elections or we’re talking about technology. And that is the question of race. And I think, you know, speak to the tech end, for now, as people were starting to have this consciousness about the ways in which technology might cause disparate harms to people of color, to Black folx, et cetera… Number one, that’s been only fairly recently.
When I first started researching this area eight to ten years ago, you didn’t have Ruha Benjamin’s work, you didn’t have Safiya Noble’s work, you didn’t have Meredith Broussard’s work. And all these folx that amplify the ways in which technology gets both design and ultimately negatively impact folx of color.
And so as that discourse began to grow, we started to have more and more conversation and it started to become part of the reality. We started having new words for these things, like, you know, “algorithmic bias.” And where we talk about the need for ethics or things of this nature. And the thing that I noticed as folx began to talk and write about these things is over and over and over again we still are papering over what is at bottom of this issue, and that is race.
And so what I mean to say is we talk about the universalizing. “Well, let’s make sure all technologies are good. Let’s make sure that our technology work for all people that no one is left behind,” which is all good, except that typically what that does and what that means is that we don’t pay specific attention to Black folx or other communities.
We assume that everybody will be part of this “let’s do and build technology for good.” But we’re not willing to talk about how we build technology that will be specifically good or mitigate harm for specific types of groups of people and communities. And I think that is the same underlying thread again, 50, 60 years ago, we talked about technology, we talk about politics and what still remains the same today.
Part of the beauty of researching and then writing this book was seeing how often Black folx have been saying this one line and how frequently and consistently over years and decades we are simply ignored. And so as technology and new computing technology was coming on the scene and being developed in the early sixties, and we were starting to talk about automation and the consequences and implications that computerization would have on the workforce and labor and Black labor in particular, civil rights folx were saying, “Look, I may not have all these fancy degrees, but I know that if anyone stands to lose, it’s gonna be Black folx first. If anyone’s gonna be computerized out of a job first, it’s gonna be Black folx” and people like Bayard Rustin and others said very early on, “Look, if we’re going to ensure that 20 years down the road, 50 years down the road, that this new technology has worked well for all people, then we must talk about the underlying issue of the fact that Black people are at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. And talk about the ways in which computers and other technology need to be designed to change that.”
But ultimately, you know what he said was, if we refuse to talk specifically about Blackness, about anti-Black racism, then we’re going to continue to have the same problem and lo and behold, 50, 60 years later, we find that’s still the case that in our elections we don’t want to talk about Blackness in our technology.
We don’t want to talk about Blackness or anti-Blackness. And I’ll just make one more example before I stop my particular rant on this one, which is I’m going back to 2016 right after the election a period of time that I started to become much more frustrated with Democrats and folx on the left than I did about the fact that Trump had won the election.
And that is, we immediately—I mean, within the day, I think it was, of the election—started to say, “Look, we really need—” And when I say “we” I mean the collective folx on the ideological left, “we really need to go pay much more attention to the concerns of white folx.” For the first time in a long time that months before the election we were talking about Black folx and you had Black Lives Matter folx, you had activists that were making sure that Bernie in that election and Clinton in that election and other people were speaking directly about race in their party platforms, in their candidate platforms for the first time in a long time.
And then all of a sudden, the conversation shifted and it became right back again, reflexively, “This is all about white folx, and if we’re gonna really solve this problem about an election, about what’s really ailing this country, we have to start thinking about white folx and their interests as the primary thing that we have to solve.
And if we solve it for those folx, then that will be inclusive of everybody.” And I think that is symptomatic of the problem that you identified, that I’m identifying, which is, it’s always so easy to simply say there’s no need to talk about Blackness, to talk about racism, and that we can think of ourselves as still trying to do some good while ignoring all those things that are at the heart of all of these problems.
Kim: So what, you just spoke on is deep, and I talk about it a lot. When whiteness is centered, everything else just goes out the window. So if I have a white transgender individual, if they go into another marginalized space with transgender or any groups within the LGBTQIA community, and they do not look for solidarity among those groups and yet go in and center whiteness, their marginalization is erased because now these individuals feel attacked, they don’t feel safe. And now they have to protect themselves against this white person who came in.
Same thing you see with white feminism, which is basically the default for feminism. Feminism by default is about whiteness. Tech by default is about whiteness. Hell, medicine, education, everything that we have is about white supremacy, and it makes white people way more comfortable to default back on what has always been. So of course, I’m not surprised that the conversation quickly shifted to the angst of white people, because that’s what makes them comfortable. That’s where they want to spend their energy and their efforts.
And yet, again, South Carolina this past Saturday showed yo’ asses, try that shit if you want to. Try it if you want to. As we have told you—I’m just gonna put it out here—four more years for us? What we gonna do is—we have learned as a community—we’re gonna protect the most vulnerable. We’re going to make sure we’re protected, and we’re going to stay the hell away from y’all. Because four more years of white people finally being in pain is not gonna be a thing that’s gonna be pretty. It is not gonna be pretty. White folx do not have the skills for the cope and the resiliency that we have.
And you see it, and once they start feeling the pain, we unfortunately get harmed. Because, this is why I do not like and do not recommend and do not purport—and I’m gonna say it again—DO NOT in all caps want to talk to people about white fragility anymore. When Robin D’Angelo came up with the theory, it was to explain the behaviors of white people when they talked about race. It was never meant to you be used as a way for white people to excuse away or not take responsibility for their actions.
Because when white people feel, when they have “white fragility”—I’ll put that in quotes—when they are experiencing “white fragility,” it does not stay with them. There is a cause and effect action. As soon as white people feel fragility, there is—and often exaggerated, I won’t even say equal—often exaggerated effect that happens to the most vulnerable, and we get harmed in how they respond. They either can be wise enough to say, “Hey, whatever is going on right now is making me uncomfortable. And I need to sit with that and shut the fuck up right now, because I may do something to harm people.”
But more times than not, what happens is they go into mode where they’re preserving their feelings over everything else, and anything else that mattered does not matter anymore because we have shifted to whiteness. We have to focus here. And this is why I tell people—I say this about 10 times a day—so I want people to understand it. Whiteness is always cast in the role of the hero or victim; it is never the villain. So it is always its role to recast and change the narrative. I don’t care what they’re doing. If they are actively stabbing someone, it is because they are being a hero or victim, it is never villain.
And so yes, I was totally, totally not surprised by what you discovered. I’m not surprised it took a day. Because as soon as that data came out that showed that white women tipped the thing, Oh! Oh, oh, oh! Now we got data! Uh-oh, uh-oh, you can’t blame us. You can try to change that narrative if you want to, but every time you do, we’re just gonna throw that data back at you because you love quantitative. So let’s deal with this quantitative. We gonna to show you pie charts and graphs up there. [Laughter]
Because that’s what you want. You don’t wanna talk about the lived experience, so we can have a conversation of why white women feel compelled—because there’s a lot of reasons—and one of them—and because you don’t want to have the nuanced conversation, I’ll just have the blatant conversation—is because white women’s roles is literally to breed white supremacy. So they roles is to breed and maintain white supremacy for their, I mean, they do it by giving birth. I mean, just that’s what it is.
And so if you don’t wanna have a nuanced conversation of why that is and how that can be shifted, I can stay right there on the surface and just be like, “That’s what you do!” And not care that you’re gonna learn these things. Or we can go get real uncomfortable—all of us—and figure this out, because once the most vulnerable are taken care of, everybody else is taken care of. And for the first time, it’s just not the canaries in the minefield that are dying. I say this all the time. White supremacy is the parasite that is now eating on its host.
Charlton: Yup. You hit it. You hit it.
Kim: They’re about to experience some pain. I was saying this at the beginning of 2018 when I was working with, I’m like “Y’all ain’t ready.” People talking about this upcoming election. But y’all not doing enough to shift—and then we saw all the bots against Kamala, with all of the disinformation. We see that, yet again, Bernie Sanders knew about Russian interference and said nothing. We have one candidate who’s still in who thought until very recently was OK to claim an ethnicity or affiliation that she didn’t have. We saw—until today because, well, yesterday he dropped out—a white man with the same exact credentials as a Black man with more experience get way more attention, way more money, way more press and everything. We saw a lot.
And this is the first election where, unless you are the group of people who only watch Fox News, you got exposed to some stuff that you can make a choice whether you gonna accept this truth as truth because it’s our lived experience or are you gonna continue to be complicit in making yourself comfortable. And these are the questions that people have to, or need to ask themselves every day in tech, which they are not yet ready to do. But lack of inclusion is a risk management issue, and very soon you won’t have a choice. So you won’t have a choice and you won’t be prepared. So that’s going to be all kinds of hell going on. [Laughs]
Charlton: All kinds of… [Laughs]
Kim: That’s gonna be all kinds of messed up.
Charlton: It’s gonna be an interestin’ few years, to say the least.
Kim: Yes, exactly. And I’m just goin’ sit back, and cross my arms, and raise my prices, and wait for you to come, ’cause I’ve been saying it. But, you know, I’m just an angry Black woman. What do I know? [laughter] I’m not pursuing a doctorate in business administration focusing on technology entrepreneurship. Of course I’m not! I don’t know what I’m talking about! [Laughter]
Charlton: Oh, my goodness.
Kim: So, tell me how—’cause I really wanna get into the thread of the—so tell me about how did you come to this particular… what’s your background that made you come to this book? Besides just being a Black man. How did you come to the technology, bringing all that together with the technology piece? What’s your background?
Charlton: Yeah. I mean, it’s an interesting question, given the thread of our conversation up till now. Because my early career, where I thought most of my career was gonna be was in elections. I worked as a political operative in Oklahoma for several years throughout the mid/late-nineties. You know anything about Oklahoma, you’ll understand the reason why that dead-ended as a career path for me. But, that’s where I began with an interest in elections and politics. Worked for a lot of politicians there. And then, my first 10, 12 years of my scholarly career was focused on trying to understand the ways that people, candidates, political candidates and so forth mobilize race in election campaigns.
And so myself and a colleague of mine named Stephen Maynard Caliendo wrote a book back in 2011, I think it was, called Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns. And that book was all about basically what we’ve been talking about this whole time, the ways that race finds its way in political discourse and that candidates use it in one way or another to find political advantage.
So that’s where most of my career—at least half of my career—had been. And towards the end of that part, I started understanding and seeing that the people that were doing the work that I was doing and the people I was having conversations with more and more had started to do that work in an online environment. And so I started to become more interested in the Internet and digital technology, mainly because it was starting to be the place for folx who were talking about race and people who were talking about politics and social mobility and so forth were doing this in this online context and in and around technology. So that’s how I started coming to this arena; for me that meant retooling in a lot of ways, both in terms of subject matter and research tools, methodology, and so forth.
And then, you know, when the Black Lives Matter movement really started to come online in 2014-2015, I think that was a turning point for me. Because I really wanted to understand how that movement came to be, particularly because folx, you know, two, three years after 2014-2015, people were already saying, “Black Lives Matter, wasn’t all that big a thing. Certainly isn’t something that’s gonna last.” But part of me wanted to say, “Look, whether that’s true or not, we should give due to what happened within that couple years’ period that had not happened really the last 50 years.” That is, for the first time in almost half a century, you had most of the country again saying that issues about race, racial disparities, racial discrimination, particularly racial discrimination at the hands of the U.S. Criminal justice system, was a significant problem that we should be talking about. That had not happened in any public and real way since about the early 1970s. But here we were in 2014, ‘15, ‘16, suddenly talking about these issues again and doing so consistently. And all that was in no small part to Black Lives Matter movement activists and others who were more tangentially connected to what was going on in that moment.
Charlton: …connected to what was going on in that moment. So I really wanted to understand how that movement came to be and really, what the role of digital media technology played in that movement. And so when I began to write Black Software, the book was really intended to be an answer to that question: where did Black Lives Matter come from, and how did it come to be?
And that was the beginning of it. And then suddenly, a little ways down the road, that all abruptly changed. As I started going back in history… and so I knew as much to know that, you know, while Black Lives Matter began technically with the young women and the activists and organizers who started a hashtag after Trayvon Martin was killed and after his killer was acquitted; that’s where technically, Black Lives Matter began, but that the conditions that laid the groundwork for what became Black Lives Matter were laid earlier in time. And so I went searching for that time.
Ended up, of course, in the early/mid-nineties when the Web first comes online. And I began to discover Black folx that were intimately involved in the creation and development of the Web from its beginnings in 1992, ‘93, ‘94. And then I remember a moment—and this was really the result of a single phone call—that changed everything. And that call was to a guy that I had come across on the Web. His name was William Morel. He was the first time I had ever seen these two words together, which was Black software; they were connected to something on his website.
And so I decided to give him a call to see what that was about and to understand what he meant by this idea of Black software. And so as I was calling and talking to folx, I usually would ask people the same question and start it off and say, “When did you first get online?” And I thought, you know, I knew the answer to that question for most people, because the Internet comes online the early 90s; I’m thinkin’ that is the answer—at least somewhere between that time and now. And I asked William that question, and he kind of hemmed and hawed a little bit and said, “Ah, you know, I was online, I think, you know, about 1978.” And I remember stopping at that point, thinkin’ to myself, “What the hell could you talking about?” What do you mean by being online in 1978? We don’t even have this thing we call the Internet, the Web, until 20-something years later. So what is it that you are talking about?
Charlton: And he began to unravel a story about his work with IBM, and IBM’s work in building a network that was an Internet for folx like him who were technicians of the company to work and speak to and troubleshoot when they were out in the field. And so the bottom line was, what he did was open the whole door about Black folx in the 90s, in the 80s, in the 70s, who were working with computing technology in ways that I had never heard of, that our history books have never talked about. And suddenly my question for this book changed, which was less about how did Black Lives Matter happen, and more to what has been the long relationship of Black folx to computing technology and the Internet over a longer history?
And that’s what ultimately landed me back in the 1960s, which was the moment when that first clash happened, and realizing that we talk about the 60s, we talk about the civil rights movement, and the rise of computing technology, and in any history—whether that’s a history of civil rights or a history of technology—if we’re talking about that same period, it’s as if these two stories are separate and disconnected stories. And so…
Kim: Boy that sounds familiar.
Charlton: Yeah, indeed. And even the most progressive folx…
Kim: OK, so I’ma stop you. I need a new definition of “progressive” cause somebody, these folx who think they’re progressive, I just, I’m like, “OK, I need white folx to stop defining terms, ‘cause y’all ain’t progressive to me.” If you can’t talk about race, you’re not progressive.
Charlton: Indeed. Well, I will say that the most distinct or different voice on that issue around tech and the civil rights movement at the time was basically saying, “Look, here we have a moment where these two stories are playing out across this decade, and they are disconnected.” And there’s none in one camp that is connected to the other and vice versa. So for me to suddenly land in that moment and to say that’s complete and utter bullshit, it was such a jarring moment—and jarring both because A: that story had never been told in that way; but also it was jarring because it was not as if—how do I put it? It was not a story that was hard to find. I’ll put it that way.
Kim: [Laughs] They never are!
Charlton: They never are. It requires that you ask the right question and that you’re willing to look in the right place. And though I will say I spent a lot of painstaking moments in archives and so forth, I only had to ask the right question to land in this mountain of stuff that told me the story that just left me day after day saying, “What the fuck is going on… that I never knew this story?” And so that’s what ultimately I attempt to write about and explain, at least in some small way, throughout the book.
Kim: That’s one of the blessings I know we give to society is that folx in tech and around tech, adjacent to tech who are not white are now able to tell—find stories, tell stories, share stories that give a more colorful—paint a more colorful picture—of reality and yet girds it in history. I mean, you can have some—I can have some conversation with some of these mediocre white tech bros—and I’m like, “Dudes, y’all think y’all made this shit up. Y’all are the most unimaginable, non-creative, mediocre, stealin’ our…” Oh, my god! All you do is—all you are is thieves! You don’t… nothing! Nothing that you do is creative to me. I really just—’cause I can look, ’cause we get all excited—and then someone like you comes and shares something, and I’m like, “Shit! This happened 20 years ago!”
Charlton: Exactly, exactly. And that was the—I talk about more, probably more often than I should, or maybe not—that moment of going and finding this time 50, 50-plus years ago in the 60s; but I think equally shocking to me was landing back in the 90s and finding out there was a—early on in the first draft of the manuscript that I started to write—there was a chapter that was called “Remember when the Internet was Black?” And for some reason that chapter disappeared, but the story is still in the book, and that was the discovery—and I say discovery for me—in essence, to say when we arrived in ‘92, ‘93, ‘94 when the Web first begins to come online, and to start to realize that at that juncture we stopped talking about an Internet that is about technical infrastructure and pipes and so forth to something that is altogether different. And to think about a moment in ‘93 and ‘94 where people didn’t know what the hell an Internet was, had no use for it, did not have any reason to say, “I will spend exorbitant amounts of money for subscriptions to AOL,” and other kind of providers… [Kim laughs] service providers…
Kim: I got them discs just sittin’ out in front of the house.
Charlton: Exactly. Like, “I got no time, no reason for all this. What the hell is it anyway?” And to think that that market for what we now call the Web was powered by Black folx. And so that’s one of those stories I tell about folx like Malcolm CasSelle and David Ellington who built NetNoir, an AOL company back in ‘94 or ‘95. And it was—it wasn’t just a Black website, it wasn’t just a Black portal—it was the Black content-driven portal that was owned by, powered by Black folx that brought everybody to this new online environment. Black folx, white folx and everyone.
So to think that Blackness was at the heart and at the foundation of what we now call the Web—and refer to as the Web—I think is monumental and is, to go back to what you were just saying, is indicative of this fact of what folx like David and Malcolm knew when they made that bet and when AOL bet on them, which is everybody loves Black culture, and at certain moments we recognize that and we build upon it, and those folx get credit and get paid for their brilliance and creativity of the things that they do. And then after a certain while, that all goes away. And then we become OK with just stealing it.
Kim: Mhm. We can see that with—people tell you—I mean, we’ll say now that Twitter is what it is because of Black Twitter. We make things cool; that’s just who we are. [Laughs] And it also speaks to—because I’m sick of the tech… the tech bros who fucked up history. Oh, my god! The history they think they know! When I say that Elon Musk is mediocre. When I say that—I mean, if I had apartheid at my back; if my parents were professors, you know, elite as his were; if I was able to take… hell, I had a computer, but you take that shit apart if you want to and get yo’ ass beat. There was no experimenting with building. And if I had all of those I think I will be… Yeah, certainly, sir. I’m no longer impressed with any of this, but yet you have, when we say something about them you have these tech bros, “Well, if it wasn’t for white people, Black people woulda been…” I’m like, “What the hell wit y’all? What planet did white people come up with anything? C’mon now!” [Laughter]
It becomes comical, and yet it is saddening at the same time. Because without books like yours, we spend our whole time trying to get people to understand our lived experiences. And I’m at a point where I don’t need to understand your lived experience for me; all I need to know that there’s a potential for harm for me to make a different choice. I don’t need for you to cut open your veins for me to see you bleed for me to understand that what I may be doing, or about to do, contemplating doing, based on your recommendation will cause harm. I don’t need to do all that. And so I really—people tell you I love a history lesson—because it helps… first of all, it helps me be completely optimistic ’cause I’m like, “Oh, we’ve been here before, we’ve survived this and we have more information now so we can do much better.” It also alleviates a lot of anxiety because it’s that whole, “OK, this is not new.” I might not have experienced it but somebody has experienced this. And also to know that Black people by—definitively, were at the beginning of this—just makes me say, “OK. OK, white mediocre dude. If you don’t get the hell out my face…” [Laughs]
Charlton: All of this is covered in—because the question, you know, all that angst this raises for folx, you know, how do we do better in tech? How do we get more of this and that? And it’s like, “Look, we’ve been here before.” And not only do we know the experience for those that have been negatively impacted, we know what the way forward is: find all of these creative Black folx and folx of color that are out here that are creating, that have ideas, and give ’em a shitload of money and let ’em do their thing. That’s…
Kim: Instead of… so I say this all the time, white dudes in tech get funded and can go from idea to IPO on VC money, and never be profitable. That’s not even in our nature. We already know we have to come out the door with proof. Give us that money and see where we can go. And you’re absolutely right, get funded—and I tell people all the time, I need y’all to shut up and lend your privilege. I just need you to shut up, and lend your privilege. You can’t live your—that’s the least you can do is lend your privilege—and get the hell out the way! Because you will profit, you will benefit. So what would you like to say in your closing moments?
Charlton: Oh, this has been great. It is, it’s fun. It’s fun talking about, you know, like you said, history is an amazing thing; even more amazing when we discover it and discover it again. And I think if there’s any lesson for me, any lesson from this book and the last few years that I spent writing it, it is, you know, we don’t have to spend all of our time trying to remake the wheel, as they say. Let’s really think about where have we been? What mistakes have we made? What opportunities have we squandered? And let’s just say, “Let’s do that different.” As a beginning. Let’s not have to spend all of our time tryna come up and create and think through all these new… nothing’s changed. Same old stuff. Let’s just resolve that we will do it and do it this time differently.
Kim: And that’s the thing that screws up with the “move fast, break things.” I don’t have a problem with “move fast, break things” fundamentally. What the problem is is you move fast, break things; move fast, break things; move fast… no one stops to say, “Hey, what did we break? How did we break it? Can we do it right? What do we do?” Nobody’s looking at that thing. We’re just moving fast and breaking things. Shall we stop and breathe and evaluate? Can we do that?
Kim: Thank you so much for coming on the show. As I knew, this would be a great conversation. All the best in your research! I’m actually looking forward to finishing school, so I can actually just be a researcher. I am so excited about this.
Charlton: Well thank you for having me. And good luck. It’s been fascinating. I look forward to another occasion to be able to join ya.
Kim: All right, thank you and have a wonderful day.
Charlton: OK, you too.
Kim: OK. Bye bye.