Rocket Science and Racism …

By Dr. James Christie, Ambassador-at-Large, Canadian Multifaith Federation

I am advised by my technophilic friends and colleagues that for the mathematically adept, and the properly instructed, even rocket science isn’t, well, rocket science. Of course, aptitude and instruction are not adequate on their own: sophisticated technology helps.

Racism in Technology and Innovation

That’s what these few words are about.  From August 17-21, the IF20 convened a regional pre-conference based out of the Berkeley Center at Georgetown University in Washington.  The opening and closing plenaries are posted on the IF20 website.  The working group session on August 21st focused on the IF20 Anti-Racism Initiative, and was chaired by Dr. Ganoune Diop.  The agenda called for a representation of each of the IF20 Permanent Working Groups to speak to the impact of racism on each of the ten Working Group areas.  Followers of the IF20 website will already be aware that the Working Groups have been structured to comprehend the major grouping of the Sustainable Development Goals.

I was charged with addressing racism from the perspective of the Working Group on Science, Religion, Technology and Innovation. In a three-minute presentation, I was asked to demonstrate how racism touched on our work. Simple, really; not exactly rocket science, what? But of course, rocket science and every other aspect of the scientific and technological realms are affected by racism. How not? Racism is insidious and ubiquitous, just as COVID-19, which has raised the ugly profile of racism to new levels of global awareness. Still, three minutes? Clearly, a minimalist approach was called for.

I decided two words were adequate: digital divide. According to Dr. Google, the digital divide is “the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet, and those who do not.” If one is on the wrong side of the digital divide, forget rocket science – or much of anything else. This is not a moral judgement; it just is.

CEGEP as a Case Study

Next, I put the issue into context, thus:

2020 marks the 60th anniversary of Québec’s “revolution tranquille” – the Quiet Revolution. In 1960, the progressive Liberal, Jean Lesage, was elected Premier of the Province, ending the draconian rule of the ultranationalist Union Nationale. Lesage’s political revolution coincided with the Second Vatican Council under the inspired leadership of the recently canonized Pope John XXIII of truly blessed memory. The ultramontane ecclesial stranglehold on Québec was released. As H.G. Wells wrote on the death of Queen Victoria, “It was as though a great paperweight had been lifted from the mind of Europe.”

In Québec, the horizon suddenly seemed limitless; innovation boundless. Québec moved from a near feudal culture to a vibrant 20th century enterprise.

One of the greatest areas of innovation was in education.

To bridge the gap between secular Protestant and religious Roman Catholic systems, Québec invented the CEGEP; Collège d’Enseignement Général et Professionel. A far cry from conventional junior colleges, the CEGEP offers two streams of education after high school. Students enjoy, with government-sourced tuition, either a two-year university preparatory programme or a three-year “terminal” programme in a profession or trade, ranging from aircraft maintenance to respiratory technology.

After more than four decades, the CEGEP system continued strong, effective, and accessible.  Then came the pandemic.  The doors of schools, colleges, and universities were closed. Education moved online.

And there, as the Bard says, is the rub.

For many, many students, the CEGEP system remains accessible through government tuition provisions. The technology to study, not so much. The digital divide reared its ugly head. CEGEP computers and public access computers at libraries and community centres are locked down. Content delivery platforms to function in the new reality are costly and mostly unavailable save to the affluent. One colleague, a CEGEP department chair, described students handwriting their assignments, then photographing the work with a flip-phone and texting it in. Digital divide; a modest expression.

Where I live, in Canada, this is reality. It is the reality of poverty and racism, which are coterminous. Do I exaggerate? I think not. To deny the ubiquity of systemic racism, even to doubt it, is to be delusional. 

Dr. James Christie is the inaugural Ambassador-at-Large for the Canadian Multifaith Federation and part of the G20 Interfaith Forum Board of Directors. For 15 years, Christie served at the University of Winnipeg as Dean of Theology, Dean of the Global College, and Director of the Ridd Institute for Religion and Global Policy.