My father was IBM’s first black software engineer. The racism he fought persists in the high-tech world today
John Stanley Ford, my father, was the first black software engineer in America, hired by IBM in 1946. Passed over for promotions, discriminated against in pay, with many inside IBM working to ensure his failure, he still viewed his job as an opportunity of a lifetime. He refused to give up.
Minority underrepresentation in high tech has been present since the earliest days of the industry. In reflecting upon my father’s career for a new memoir I wrote about him, I saw important lessons about the history and nature of racism in high tech, and about the steps that corporations and individuals can take to bring about much-needed change.
IBM publicly represents itself as a company with deep roots in diversity and inclusion, but history tells a different story. The roots of racism in high tech coincide with the advent of the digital age, when in the late 1920s a fledgling company run by a cutthroat but savvy businessman named Thomas J. Watson saw an opportunity in eugenics.
Eugenics is a pseudoscience that seeks to create a “racially pure” master human race by eliminating those deemed inferior. In 1928, the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., had undertaken a project to identify mixed-race individuals on the island of Jamaica for forced sterilization and other means of population control. Realizing the massive amount of data to be collected and compiled, Watson stepped in with IBM to provide the punched-card technology crucial for the Jamaica project’s success.
In 1933, Watson offered IBM’s services, based on similar punched-card technology, to the Third Reich and automated every aspect of Hitler’s war machine — including Luftwaffe bombing runs, train schedules for carrying Jews to camps, and the measures by which Jews were apprehended and exterminated. Concentration camps had IBM rooms, where the gruesome tallies of life and death were encoded on IBM punched cards.
In recognition of IBM’s extraordinary service, Hitler created a medal festooned with swastikas that he pinned on Watson in 1937. Although Watson returned the medal when America entered the war, IBM’s support of the Nazi regime never ceased. (IBM has never acknowledged the company’s role in the Holocaust nor disputed historical accounts of it.)
The defeat of Nazi Germany did not end this distasteful marriage between high tech and racism. IBM turned next to South Africa, where for decades the company provided critical computer technology to help classify and segregate South Africa’s population, producing the passbooks used for the brutal subjugation of blacks.
Then, a decade after Nelson Mandela stepped from prison in South Africa, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers. In the aftermath of that horrific event, the New York City Police Department created a massive closed-circuit television surveillance center. IBM secretly used camera footage of thousands of unknowing New Yorkers obtained from the center’s cameras to refine its facial recognition and video analytics software to search for and identify people by “hair color, facial hair and skin tone.”
IBM no longer stands alone. Other high-tech companies are advancing against race. A few weeks ago, Never Again Action, a Jewish peace group, marched from a Holocaust memorial in Boston to one of Amazon’s offices in Cambridge, Mass. The group cited IBM’s involvement with Nazi Germany as a reason Amazon should not supply facial recognition technology for use at the U.S. border. Amazon, in turn, has attacked an MIT researcher who demonstrated built-in racial bias in facial recognition software.
A Google search delivered misleading information on black-on-white crime to Dylann Roof, contributing to his desire to massacre nine black men and women in a South Carolina church. Microsoft released a chatbot named Tay, designed to learn from Twitter users. Within 24 hours, Tay claimed the Holocaust never happened, professed hatred for women and suggested that black people should be hanged.
“Garbage in, garbage out,” software engineers say. Likewise, racism in, racism out. Biased developers produce biased code. But from my father, I learned there are ways to fight back. Facing racism encountered daily within IBM, my father relied on his community for support.
His Baptist church attended to the moral and spiritual needs of the many black “firsts” in various fields by those in our Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. And many of the women he met through the church possessed technical skills, such as switchboard operating, learned during World War II, that would prove useful in the early days of computers. My father helped some of them gain employment at IBM.
Today, community-based organizations such as the Technology Access Foundation in Seattle or Black Girls Code in San Francisco carry forth the work of providing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for minority youth, and provide the moral support to help them reach their fullest potential.
My father always found ways to give back. He felt it was only a matter of time before other black men and women broke through the barriers to advancement he faced at IBM. Somehow, he managed to obtain copies of the IBM entrance examination questions and answers, which he surreptitiously shared with promising young black job applicants. He coached them on passing the exam and succeeding in their interviews. Many were subsequently hired.
Yet the percentage of blacks and non-Asian minorities in high-tech professions consistently remains under 2%. For minority women, the numbers are even more dismal. Recent studies conclude this is not a “pipeline” problem — qualified candidates can be found.
Training of software engineers can shed light on the historical and cultural issues that give rise to biased code. Data used to train algorithms can be scoured for embedded bias. Quality assurance can be expanded to include tests on users of all demographics.
Organizations like Never Again Action, which seeks to end technology used for racial discrimination, also have a role. They can insist on digital literacy curricula in all classrooms, especially classrooms of marginalized communities and communities of color; promote software and algorithms already vetted as bias-free; and align themselves with groups working to evaluate and hold algorithm makers accountable.
But these measures are not enough. Only when more people of color and other minorities ascend to the boardrooms and C-suites of high-tech firms — the highest levels of decision-making and power — will the systemic changes required to end racism and bias in high tech begin to take place.
My father believed that technology offered the possibility of a more democratic, egalitarian future. But he also often admonished me to learn to control technology before it learned to control me. We are at a tipping point where my father’s words must be taken seriously if technology is to be used for a society that we choose to live in rather than one that high-tech corporations find most profitable to create.
Clyde W. Ford was an IBM software engineer from 1971 to 1977. He is the author of a memoir about his father, “Think Black,” from which this is adapted.
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.