The existence of these training efforts reflects the diverse motivations of the organizers, who were mostly white and well-off volunteers. These volunteers tend to live in poverty in the city, and they think that people who live in these conditions are not white and that all such people can be lumped together under the heading of “disadvantaged”. They thought that learning to code would provide these participants with a direct path out of poverty. But their thinking had little understanding of the obstacles they faced through centuries of slavery, unpaid labor, Jim Crow violence, wage discrimination, and segregated and unequal education, health care, and housing. Largely self-interested, they saw these gifted programs as a solution to racial inequality and social unrest. A group from the Delaware ACM chapter, a conference report noted, believes that, “In this urban crisis, the data processing industry offers a unique opportunity for the poor to participate in the American way of life.”
If success is defined as more and more black and Hispanic men and women getting good jobs in computing and, in addition, giving them the opportunity to design and inform world-changing technologies – then these programs have failed. According to scholar Arvid Nelson, some volunteers “may be focused on the needs and wants of the community.” Others wanted a Band-Aid for “civil unrest.” Meanwhile, Nelson said, businesses benefited from “a very limited source of cheap labor.” In short, training people to code didn’t just mean they’d get better, higher-paying, more stable jobs — it just meant more entry-level workers to lower labor costs for the growing computer industry. .
In fact, observers recognized the shortcomings of these efforts at the time. Walter DeLegal, a black computing expert at Columbia University, argued in 1969 that the “magic of information processing training” was no magic bullet and that quick-fix training programs for black and Spanish-speaking students reflected deficiencies in American public education. He questioned the motivation behind them, saying that sometimes they were organized “commercially or simply to subvert and dissipate the grievances of these communities” rather than to promote equity and justice.
The computer revolution was a public effort to respond to these shortcomings, coming from a completely different direction.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, civil rights activist Robert P. Moses lived with his family in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his daughter Mysha attended the public Martin Luther King Jr. School and volunteered to teach algebra. He noted that math groups were officially segregated by race and class, and that much less was expected of black and brown students. Earlier, he identified computers and computer-based knowledge work as a source of economic, political, and social power. Getting into college was critical to that kind of energy, and Moses saw that one of the keys to getting there was a foundation in high school math, particularly algebra. In the early 1980s, he established the Algebra Project, starting with Cambridge Public Schools and supported by a MacArthur “genius grant” he received in 1982.
In a later book, Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to Algebra Project, Moses articulates the relationship between mathematics, computing, economic justice, and political power, especially for black Americans. “The most pressing social issue affecting the poor and people of color is economic access. In today’s world, economic access and full citizenship depend on math and science literacy,” he wrote. “The computer has become a cultural force as well as a work tool. [and] The visible manifestation of technological change is the computer, but the implicit culture of the computer is mathematics.
Equipping black students with math literacy tools was radical in the 1980s precisely because it challenged power dynamics.
Moses attended Hamilton College in New York and received his master’s degree from Harvard University before teaching mathematics at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx from 1958 to 1961. The 1980s precisely because access to technology meant access to power. “Who is going to use the new technology?” he asked. “Who is in control? What do we need the education system to prepare for the new age of technology?
Moses coordinated with students and parents to ensure that algebra was offered to all students at Martin Luther King Jr. School. He devised new approaches to teaching the subject, and enlisted students to teach his peers, drawing on the experience of grassroots civil rights organizing. College admissions rates and test scores have increased at the school, and the algebra project has spread to at least 22 other sites in 13 states. It focused on math because Moses identified math as the basis of coding, and the bounty has always been linked to economic justice and educational equity in an economy built on algorithms and data.