Critical Figures: Charting the History of ‘Black Software’ in Tech

Charlton McIlwain explores the struggles and triumphs of Black tech workers in the 20th century while tracing the winding paths of Black experience online.

A Black man's eyes and nose are obscured by an access error pop window that says, "404 — Not Found" followed by two buttons: "ignore" and "solve."
Adriana Bellet

In early 2000, the television network Oxygen started airing a mini-series called Oprah Goes Online. The show chronicled Oprah Winfrey’s introduction to the internet, documenting her first encounters with email, online shopping, and, hilariously, her website. (“A link is a hook-’em-up!” she enthuses.) Lighthearted as it was, Oprah Goes Online was one of many efforts at the time to introduce technology to households — especially Black households. In an Ebony article published later that year, the Black entrepreneur Yvette Moyo drew an explicit connection between technology and Black progress. “Once our young people embrace technology,” she said, “we will be able to do the same thing on computers that we’re able to do in the halls of Congress, in the world of literature and academia and on the basketball courts.”

Such comments were typical of the era, reflecting a concern that technology would exacerbate the socioeconomic gaps between households with computers and internet access and those without. Black communities were also not alone in their urgency and optimism. “While most people talk about the digital divide — and it is real, and it could get worse — I believe that the computer and the internet give us a chance to move more people out of poverty more quickly than at any time in all of human history,” remarked President Bill Clinton in 2000. The idea of the digital divide was a nationwide rallying cry.

If the sentiment now scans as rosy and overblown, Charlton McIlwain’s book Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter adds considerable substance to the moment. Embedded in all of this urgency and hope, he shows, was an awareness of how little involvement Black people had in the creation and planning of digital technology. A sociologist of digital media and race, McIlwain contrasts the present era, in which Black expression, politics, and culture are the lingua franca of the web, with the longstanding dearth of Black people in the tech industry, asking how the former happened despite the latter. This inquiry initiates an odyssey through six decades of labor, civil rights, and commercial histories that McIlwain packages as “Black software.” 

McIlwain’s main interest is how one of the most vibrant activist movements of the past decade, Black Lives Matter, happened online, but the book is essentially an alternative history of the tech industry. As he explores the struggles and triumphs of Black tech workers in the 20th century, McIlwain’s curiosity unearths a history of exclusion.

The book is powered by a dual sense of correction and discovery. Where previous scholars have overwhelmingly focused on Black access to technology (the digital divide, computers in schools, mobile phone use) and its various cultural expressions (Afrofuturism, Black digital art, Black Twitter), McIlwain is concerned with industry and infrastructure. He doesn’t dismiss content creation or media, but he’s more interested in people, an approach that leads him to talk to Black tech workers at length about their work experiences and paths into the field. Quoted in lengthy chunks throughout the book, the technicians, engineers, programmers, and entrepreneurs that he speaks with provide fascinating portraits of the workplace and market challenges that Black people working in STEM fields endured in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

Kamal Al-Mansour, for example, worked as a systems contracts administrator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1980s. “Everything was about software,” he tells McIlwain, but he eventually left because of tension between his job and his beliefs. “Reagan was president at the time, and many of the projects I was working on at the time were in space. It was conflicting for me doing a gig that was supporting missiles in the sky, and on the other hand trying to find my own identity and culture in the world. JPL was somewhat hostile in many ways and I would come home each day [thinking], What did I accomplish that benefited people like me? And the answer every day would be ‘Nothing.’ ” 

He went on to create AfroLink, a pioneering suite of software programs that focused on Black and African history and culture, including digital image libraries, interactive educational applications, and a “Black Bulletin Board.” Introduced in 1990, these were the first Afrocentric multimedia software products available to the public, engaging educators, administrators, and even medical professionals around technology’s potential to serve the Black community. “I wanted to create a digital bridge to what I thought was a beacon that many people were interested in,” Al-Mansour says. Through AfroLink, he established a more sanguine relationship with technology, using it to promote Black culture and connect Black people online. 

Documenting the struggles Black people face is enlightening regardless of whether our obstacles are by design, by neglect, or by accident.

William Murrell, an IBM technician during the 1980s, similarly quit his job because of workplace discomfort. “Conformity was very important at IBM,” he recalls. “All the IBM bosses were middle-aged, fifty-something white men…. Customers were fine and hospitable but I think IBM staffers were stuck up.” Deeply versed in IBM’s hardware and software, he soon launched MetroServe Computer Company, a retail and service provider that was Boston’s largest Black-owned computer store by the early 1990s.

The origin of Afronet, an email newsgroup and bulletin board network that launched in 1993, parallels the births of AfroLink and MetroServe. Its creator, a biomedical graduate student named Ken Onwere, sought to link the scattered PC-based message boards and echomail conferences that Black users were confined to at the time, and envisioned Afronet as an agent of black connectivity. “There were very few African Americans working with online technologies,” he tells McIlwain. “At the time, the Internet was still just an academic research network. It was only visible in academic institutions that were linked to the D.O.D. network, ARPA. Afronet for me was, ‘Let’s get like-minded Africans and African Americans in the US, in Canada, who were already active with online technologies, and let’s see if we can come up with a network,’ which was in essence a hub to exchange messages, emails, electronic bulletin boards about topics of interest to us.”

“It’s time for a change,” Onwere wrote wearily in a public call for volunteers to help build Afronet. His call would go on to link Murrell, Al-Mansour, and other pioneering Black technologists. In its blend of opportunism and community, Afronet also anticipated the emergence of the AOL-backed NetNoir, launched by David Ellington and Michael CasSelle in 1995, which marked the first major corporate backing of a Black website. “The idea of a network of black culture was an opportunity,” Ellington tells McIlwain. 

McIlwain’s rich profiles demystify the promising startup myths that are often attributed to the early tech industry, moving the focus beyond Silicon Valley. Although his chronicle eventually heads to the promised land, the time he spends at Charlotte’s Duke Power Company, Pasadena’s JPL, and IBM along the way serves as a reminder that the tech industry’s issues with inclusion and anti-Blackness were (and are) continuous with wider labor practices.

Murrell and Al-Mansour’s transition from predominantly white spaces to the creation of Black spaces is a recurring motif in McIlwain’s accounts. He sticks closely to the companies and institutions that his interviewees dealt with directly, but it’s worth zooming farther out and considering the wider history of Black labor in the US at the time. As the computer revolution was underway, Black workers still fought for basic protections. In 1986, for instance, a Black welder had to petition the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for his employer, BP, to allow him to take a certification test. The period was full of such discrimination, at the FBI, Burger King, Texaco — virtually every industry was rife with prejudice.

A prescient 1984 op-ed that was published in the Black newspaper Afro-American used this broader history of workplace discrimination to question the uniqueness of the tech industry, which was advertising itself as different from other industries. “Labor force statistics indicate, first, that most blacks perform at low-skilled positions in high tech firms,” the uncredited author wrote. “Blacks are almost never hired as managers, but as low level operatives and clerical workers in such companies…. Despite industry claims that high tech could generate a huge demand for skilled workers… because the vast majority of these new jobs will be clerical and operatives, blacks and Hispanics now entering the field won’t benefit materially.” This prediction proved true 17 years later, as the tech industry experienced so many EEOC complaints of unequal promotions that it nearly doubled the staff of its California office.

Black Software falters as McIlwain attempts to refine his findings into a master narrative of the tech industry. Discussing internal IBM applications that became formative computing features (e.g., real-time messaging, information search, calendaring), he adopts a jarring tone: “All of these features had a history — all not entirely favorable to black people.” There’s promise here, but the reference is left vague. McIlwain doesn’t tease out these histories or clarify how they affect Black people in particular.

This brand of loaded but empty statement becomes a crux as the book goes on. McIlwain is clearly moved by the stories he’s unearthed, but his conviction tends toward overstatement and hagiography. In his history of NetNoir, for instance, McIlwain emphatically defends the commercial aims of the site’s creators: “NetNoir would not just be good for them (though, to be clear, they both planned to get filthy rich). They also believed their success would translate to something significant and positive for black people. They willingly shouldered that burden. If they don’t succeed, we don’t succeed.”

McIlwain’s hyperbole is somewhat understandable. NetNoir was positioned to reach many more Black internet users than the decentralized Usenets, listservs, and email communities that NetNoir hoped to supplant. Nevertheless, despite its initial prominence, NetNoir went on to have a much smaller cultural profile than ventures like the social networking site BlackPlanet or BET.com. The former was one of the first Black websites to enter the zeitgeist, receiving mentions in music and turning its founder, Omar Wasow, into a bit of a celebrity. When Oprah went online, it was Wasow by her side, not the creators of NetNoir.

McIlwain is wise to speak with the founders and creators of Black spaces, but his accounts too often trace Blackness as a commodity rather than an experience. Beyond the establishment of Black spaces and businesses, there’s little sense of what Black people sought and found when they went online, or what the early internet provided Black people — or anyone else who was surfing the web — relative to their lives offline.

The book’s second half doubles down on this approach. Inspired by the cozy relationship between law enforcement and the tech industry, McIlwain dives deep into the development of early computerized intelligence systems like Kansas City, Missouri’s ALERT II. “What were black people to the 1960s and 1970s computer system?” he asks. “ALERT II and the rise of criminal justice information systems more broadly began the long-standing process of turning black people into abstract data.”

His broad goal is twofold: 1) show how little input Black people could provide when these systems were being planned, and how that lack of access contributed to contemporary abusive outputs like PredPol, CrimeScan, and the Strategic Subject List; and 2) tease out how Black Lives Matter, which emerged from online social media networks, flourished despite these grim beginnings. Unfortunately, McIlwain casts these early intelligence systems with a conspiratorial pall that’s frustratingly glib. He describes government contractor Simulmatics as “an experimental corporation of dubious origins” as if he heard of them in a dimly lit K Street bar. He labels the members of the Science and Technology Task Force of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice “the Committeeman,” as if he’s paraphrasing documents he had to burn after reading.

These gaps are vexing because they depend on a gotcha element that’s not needed. A device that perpetuates racism doesn’t require a racist blueprint to be harmful to Black people. Its impact defines its legacy as much as its origins. We do not have to imagine cabals and committees plotting Black demise just to make it real. We also do not have to excavate that realness solely in the form of abuse and explicit prejudice. What makes the first half of the book so interesting is that McIlwain’s Black subjects grant us access to the work environments that hagiographies preclude. Documenting the struggles Black people face is enlightening regardless of whether our obstacles are by design, by neglect, or by accident.

This diffuseness is what Black Lives Matter has mobilized around. Modern racial inequalities can rarely be reduced to individual bad actors and institutions. And in some cases, racial disparities persist in the absence of ill intentions. Black Lives Matter is vital because it does not seek a gotcha within this vacuum of accountability. The movement for Black lives emerges wherever oppressed people need fairness, whether it’s the workplace, the courts, or in public discourse, or whether the obstacle to justice is a police union, a district attorney, or an administration. In its best moments, Black Software is just as modular, relying less on a singular villain and more on tracing the winding, varied paths of Black experience.

Ultimately, the book offers no satisfying answer for why Blackness thrives on the internet other than that Black people, like everyone else, use it shrewdly, but its methods are instructive. McIlwain’s approach to probing the relationship between Blackness and technology is to talk to Black people, to ground viral tweets and glum statistics in lives as well as media and politics. While he abandons that tactic midway and reaches farther than his sources allow, he nonetheless gestures at a more comprehensive history of technology — one in which minorities are not just asterisks and marginal stakeholders, but active participants at all stages of its life cycle.

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A Black man's eyes and nose are obscured by an access error pop window that says, "404 — Not Found" followed by two buttons: "ignore" and "solve."

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Adriana Bellet

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