Canadian Consulting Engineer

SPEAKING OUT: Black Engineers

The civil rights movement in the United States during the early 1960s unleashed a social consciousness and activism that resulted in relatively swift action by the Massachusetts Institute of Technolog...

December 1, 2001  By David C. K. Tay, Ph.D., P.Eng.

The civil rights movement in the United States during the early 1960s unleashed a social consciousness and activism that resulted in relatively swift action by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). By September 1972 the U.S. university had created the post of assistant dean of the graduate school with special responsibility for increasing the number of minority graduate students.

Dr. Clarence G. Williams assumed the position on September 1, 1972. His initial duties quickly expanded to include all matters relating to minorities within the MIT institution, and to act as spokesperson for such matters outside.

Early this year, MIT Press published a book by Williams titled Technology and the Dream, Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999. As one of the first major works to record the experience of black engineering students in North America, the text is a milestone. It gives a detailed account of the epoch-making pioneering efforts by the university to increase the presence of black people. The introductory section consists of the author’s account of the history, role and experience of blacks at MIT over a 59-year period, and includes his reflections and candid advice. The bulk of the book is composed of recorded oral history, interviews of past and present students, faculty, administrators and staff — mostly black but including those non-blacks whose actions made an impact on blacks at MIT. As if the book were not voluminous enough, a CD-ROM was included to complement the oral interviews not covered in the printed work.

Dr. Williams has not only reviewed the black experience specifically within MIT, but also makes reference to the U.S. as a whole. He accurately pinpoints the psychological pressures and tensions unique to black students and professionals in the classroom and workplace. He also aptly analyzes the difference in the attitude adopted by foreign black students that has enabled them to adapt better than African-American students have done. By refusing to allow negative social feelings or attitudes to prevent them from focusing on their academic goals and educational priorities, the foreign black students were able to forge meaningful relationships with non-black students and faculty members.


Williams’ analysis confirms what I have heard from two of my professional colleagues, both fellow Ghanaians and former civil engineering students at MIT. One obtained his Bachelor degree in the late 1950s and a Master’s degree in 1961. The other, a graduate student in the early 1960s obtained his D.Sc. degree in 1966. Their accounts, as given to me in conversations over the years, also corroborate many aspects of the students’ experiences narrated in the book’s oral history. They took solace in the knowledge that their stay was temporary; that they were there for a specific purpose; and hence were better able to either tolerate or ignore discriminatory attitudes and racial insults.

While foreign black students are able to devise techniques to minimize the impact of discrimination on their lives within academic institutions, they cannot escape the pressures faced by blacks as a whole in the outside society. The pressures are enormous and can be truly felt and fully understood only by those being victimized. In spite of the progress made since the tumultuous days of the civil rights era, racial profiling, as often portrayed in the news media, is still alive and prevalent in the United States. Some of these situations are illustrated by my own experience while travelling to that country.

Without exception, during each of the five trips I have made by car to Florida with my family since the mid-1970s, I have been pulled off route I-95 by the Florida highway patrol for no apparent reason other than the obvious one that I fit a racial profile. On each occasion after checking my car registration number and driver’s license, I was let go without a charge or even a reprimand for committing a highway infraction. Without statistical corroboration, I am convinced that this occurrence is not uniform among all races. I have spoken to many colleagues of different races who have made similar trips by car to Florida and few of them have ever been pulled off the same road by the police.

The latest occasion for me happened as recently as September 24, 1998. While vacationing at Madeira Beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida, an order was given to evacuate the area on account of an approaching hurricane. So, like thousands of other Florida residents and vacationers, we headed north in our cars. In spite of the very heavy northbound traffic on I-95, I was again signaled off the highway by the highway patrol, ordered out of the car in the pouring rain, and detained for about 20 minutes while the officer checked the records at the station by radio.

Another pressure faced by African blacks, which even African-American blacks would not comprehend, is the simple fact of being called or referred to as black. It is well known throughout the African continent that even though Africans have names for colours in their languages, they use colour sparingly in descriptions and rarely in reference to people. Before the first Europeans went to Africa, Africans, in general, did not describe themselves as black or any shade of colour. Nor did most Africans refer to the Europeans who came to Africa by the colour of their skin. Thus, the names they call Europeans contain no reference to colour, e.g. (A)Yevu (Ewe), Obroni (Akan), Oyimbo (Yoruba), Ndongo (Kikuyu), Mwungu (Swahili). Non-Africans may find it hard to believe that even the names given to albinos, who genetically lack pigmentation in their skin and therefore conspicuously stand out in sharp visual contrast within African society, do not refer to their colour, e.g. gesosi (Ewe), afin (Yoruba).

Hence, the pervasive reference in the English language to different human races by colour, and even to objects such as black or white coffee and dark or white meat, creates first a cultural puzzle, then additional psychological pressures when colour becomes associated with perceived negative discrimination.

These discriminatory experiences come in various forms. They range from the blatant, in-your-face, systemic type of racism such as my family and I experienced while vacationing in Branson and the Ozarks region of Missouri in August 1988, to a subtle endemic discrimination. While the former leaves no doubt as to the reasons behind the actions, the latter is more difficult to fathom since sometimes the line between cultural differences, plain ignorance and racial discrimination becomes blurred. It is not easy to know whether the unsavoury practices one experiences are singular instances of bad personal behaviour, or borne out of conscious racism.

Canadian encounters

Unlike my experience in travelling in the U.S. I cannot recall receiving any unsavoury attention from the Canadian police in the almost 40 years that I have lived here. However, I am growing more and more concerned about the relation between the police and those frequently described as “young black male,” and this concern includes my son. He graduated in engineering at the University of Waterloo in 1996 and is now an industrial design graduate student in the U.S. Just this past June when he came to Toronto during the summer vacation, he found a quiet and peaceful park off the Don Valley Parkway. He drove into the park to meditate and write the journal in which he has been keeping notes for his thesis. When he left a police car followed him and pulled him off the road. The police shouted instructions to him while approaching the car and ordered him to get out with his hands up. He was frisked from head to toe while all the time being told that his rights were not being infringed upon. The police went through his wallet and thoroughly searched the inside and the trunk of the car. Only after everything was found to be in order was he told that the reason for searching him was a report received of a robbery committed by a black man in the park. He was let go but such an ugly experience would leave an i
ndelible emotional scar on any human psyche.

I was also surprised to find that the open type of racial stereotyping is becoming more prevalent in Canada when I was called on jury duty in Toronto four years ago. During one of the jury selection processes, a lawyer asked whether any of the potential jurors had a problem with being on a panel judging a “young black male” defendant. I could not believe my ears when a few potential jurors responded yes. During the other jury selection processes, I did not hear a similar question being asked when the defendants were young white males or any other race. The experience left a dent in my long-held view that any racial discrimination in Canada is subtle rather than institutional or systemic.

I have always been convinced that Canada’s long history of multiculturalism and tolerance for different races was behind the early actions taken at the University of Toronto to soften the initial shock and pressures experienced by newly landed foreign students. Long before the awakening of racial consciousness and the corrective actions instituted at MIT in the late 1960s, the University of Toronto had set up an organization called Friendly Relations with Overseas Students (FROS) with sponsorship from local service and professional organizations, such as the Toronto Junior Board of Trade and the Rotary Club. When I arrived in Toronto from Ghana in October 1961 to pursue graduate studies in the Department of Civil Engineering, the first person I met was a representative of FROS who gave me my first orientation and helped me find a place in a student residence.

Throughout that first year, individual members of FROS took it upon themselves to organize group and individual activities to make the foreign students feel at home. I was taken to a football game at the Canadian National Exhibition Stadium within weeks after arrival. On another occasion, I was taken on a flight around Toronto in a private Cessna plane. During that first year I was frequently invited to Canadian homes for dinner with families. Some African students I know were literally adopted into families during their entire student years in Canada. The African Students Union reciprocated by organizing periodic cultural events to which Canadians were invited. The FROS Centre was later replaced by the International Students Centre which continues to carry out similar hospitality functions.

Even though efforts were made by the university administration, FROS and its supporting organizations to welcome foreign students and make them feel at home, the rarity of Canadian blacks and Canadian native minorities on the Toronto campus was very conspicuous. This observation became a passionate interest of mine in the 1960s. One lesson I learnt quickly was the difference in attitudes between African and Canadian black students, similar to the MIT experience reported in Williams’ book. Meanwhile, my persistent curiosity and questions about the plight of aboriginal Canadians were quickly dismissed with the simplistic explanation that natives were a federal government responsibility. Eventually, however, a trip was arranged for the African students to visit the Six Nations in Brantford, Ontario. To our surprise, that was also the first visit to an Indian reserve for several of the white Canadians who accompanied the group.

While the university tried hard to make the social life of foreign students comfortable, a common problem shared with MIT was the lack of black faculty and administrators to provide a pool of academic mentors and role models for black students. A similar lack of mentorship and role models is pervasive today throughout the professional scene and workplace. Coupled with this lack of nurturing is the pressure felt by black professionals that they are placed under extra scrutiny and that they have to be more qualified, perform better or work harder in order to receive the same recognition as their non-black colleagues. Perhaps this pressure is felt not only by blacks, but also by all visible minorities in the workplace.

This is where the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the largest student-managed organization in both the U.S. and Canada can play a major role. Started in 1975, it has more than 10,000 members in more than 270 chapters on college and university campuses. Its mission is to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers to excel academically, succeed professionally and have an impact on the community. Some stated objectives are to stimulate and develop student interest in the various engineering disciplines and the profession.

The Canadian chapters of NSBE are active on campuses in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. In March 1998, I was honoured to be invited as one of the guest speakers during the Minorities in Engineering spring break conference organized by the NSBE Ryerson Polytechnic University chapter in Toronto. The future of NSBE in both the U.S. and Canada is unlimited. It is through the efforts of such an organization that public awareness of engineering and the opportunities for blacks and other minorities in the profession can be promoted.

My starting point for this essay, Williams’ Technology and the Dream, provides a reference point on racial and minority issues faced within MIT and the actions taken to solve them. The lessons learnt are, however, applicable to other academic institutions, organizations, the news media, as well as regulatory authorities within the U.S. and other countries with minority populations.

The book is about academic racial equality, tolerance for diversity, individual freedom and democracy for all. Therefore, I cannot help making the comparison with student and racial issues on the international scene. While MIT and the academic institutions in the U.S. were wrestling with finding solutions for civil rights problems in the 1960s, several African students studying in Russian institutions at the time came under verbal abuse and physical attack. More recently, and only a few weeks prior to the Tiananmen Square incident, African students studying in Beijing, China were physically attacked, beaten viciously and eventually driven out of the country by fellow Chinese students on the simplistic pretext that the Africans’ generous scholarships afforded them better living conditions than the Chinese had. The attacks, obviously borne of envy and racial hatred, were well documented and widely reported throughout the international news media at the time. However, the issue was quickly forgotten and completely overshadowed by the Tiananmen Square confrontation between Chinese students and Chinese government tanks, all in the name of freedom and democracy. How easy it is to forget that while one group of students was being revered as freedom fighters and heroes for democracy, another group of students, only weeks earlier, blatantly violated the freedom and human rights of African students who were guests in their country.CCE

David C.K. Tay, Ph.D., P.Eng. is senior principal, senior specialist and chief technical officer at Morrison Hershfield in Toronto. He has been with the company since 1970, involved in special projects such as the award-winning Gravity Base Structure for the Hibernia offshore oil platform. He received Morrison Hershfield’s first Carson F. Morrison Award of Excellence for Customer Service in 1994. He has taught in the Department of Civil Engineering, University of Toronto (1963-67) and lectured at the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana (1968-70). He was made a Fellow of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering in June 2001.

All images are from Technology and the Dream MIT Press.



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