On display at The National Museum of African American History and Culture
Even though West African descendants have made important innovations that helped to create the modern world, those contributions would have been more numerous were it not for the prohibitive might of racists on both sides of the Atlantic. The social conditions (racism, segregation, Jim Crow) faced by African- Americans vis-a-vis the white community allow us to see how social rules impact the rate of innovations in different communities.
Among 2 million patents awarded by the US government between 1870 and 1937, 726 innovations having to do with infrastructure were awarded to people of West African descent (Ginen). When controlled for population size, between 1870 and 1900, the percentage of patents awarded to African Americans was comparable to that awarded to European Americans. After 1900, the US government moved away from protecting all its citizens equally and segregation became evermore entrenched. Every social advantage and economic advantage would now be granted preferentially to people of European descent. The disadvantages imposed by legalized segregation prevented the African-American community from continuing to register innovations at a pace comparable to that of European Americans.
Although the black population was taxed at the same rate, the schools in African- American communities were underfinanced and could not compete with those in European American communities. Moreover, segregation laws prevented African-Americans from circulating freely. Such restrictions prevented blacks from attending meetings in various professional organizations and that prevented them from sharing ideas with their peers. Even when these barriers were overcome, there were other limitations. African-Americans could not travel to town centers to meet with lawyers to patent their ideas nor to defend patents they already had.
Professor Lisa Cook showed conclusively that the years that were marked by the most violent attacks against black communities were the same years that the least number of innovations were patented by members of the African-American community. Insecurity for their lives led African -Americans to conclude that the government would not protect their lives let alone their intellectual property. In 1921, after the biggest massacre against the Black community -the destruction of Black Wall Street- the number of patents recorded by African- Americans plummeted by 15% in comparison to the previous year. Professor Cook analyzed the number of patents registered by African Americans against the years of major massacres and found a similar plunge in innovation in each of those years. Professor Cook then went further and calculated how much racism cost in terms of innovations lost to the economy and to humanity. She calculated that 1,100 innovations were lost because the US Government would not protect the Civil Rights of a portion of its population.
The African American community’s experience provides a window for understanding the scarcity of contributions in technology coming out of Post-Independence Haiti. The US imposed a 65-year embargo preventing Haitians from travelling to professional international conferences where ideas were being debated. This embargo prevented Haitians in various fields from sharing ideas with their peers. Similarly, people of European descent who were deprived of such contacts also made fewer innovations. The indemnity to France and the embargo helped to impoverish the country, depriving it of resources to fund schools, build infrastructure, and allow its citizens to travel and share ideas. All this stifled Haitian innovation.
When it comes to West Africa, it suffered a fate similar to Haiti’s. The participation of some African leaders in the Commerce of People as Slaves impoverished Africa. It led to Africans living in fear and diminishing their travels to avoid kidnappings. Not only did West Africa lose 12 million people to the Commerce of People as Slaves, but it lost the social tranquility needed for the making of innovations. With insecurity, people decrease social activities. Innovation suffers when social conditions do not favor the exchange of ideas.
While the Commerce of People as Slaves created social insecurity that was devastating to Africa, it created wealth in Europe. That wealth led to fewer wars among West European ethnic groups, allowing them to collaborate and expand into modern powerful nations. Increased security and capital made in the Commerce of People as Slaves financed the building of infrastructure in Western Europe. It built such things as roads and universities that then magnified the wealth by expanding the power of governments that built ever larger armies to procure more and more foreign wealth.
The prosperity founded in the Commerce of People as Slaves, made many Europeans arrogant enough to think that they were superior to other people. Often without recognizing it, the security provided by the wealth made from slavery enabled Europeans to increase their literacy rates, walk the globe, and attend professional conferences. It is precisely in countries where wealth from slavery was made that Europeans developed the social capital that allowed them to make numerous contributions in the development of modern technology. However, these social benefits were mostly enjoyed by white men. White women have made far fewer innovations as they were barred from enjoying the social privileges reserved for white men.
So, when people criticize the black community for insufficient scientific contributions, we should bear in mind that West African descendents made significant contributions to the making of the modern world despite having had the heavy knee of racism on their necks.