In a narrative that is overwhelmingly positive, the history of engineering is commonly told as a story of progress and achievement. From the Brooklyn Bridge and the Hoover Dam to countless roadway and water projects across America, engineers designed and built an infrastructure that not only drove progress and growth, but also protected public health, safety, and welfare. From Edison’s lightbulb and Bell’s telephone to computers and the Internet, engineers created technologies that revolutionized the way we live and work. And, from mechanical and electrical devices to chemical processes, members of the Engineering Community were central to both industrial and consumer revolutions in the United States and across the world.
Members of the Engineering Community can and should take pride in this promethean legacy, one that continues as we move into a new century.
In his theories about the human psyche, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung describes a shadow that accompanies the face we present to the public and ourselves. That shadow is “full of those things we have no wish to be, and certainly no wish to present to the public: our fears, our insecurities, our anxieties.[i]” Taking a cue from Jung, we might ask – is there a “shadow story” of engineering in the United States? Does our dominant narrative obscure or ignore parts of our history where engineers were involved in technological developments that were deeply harmful to individuals and groups within our society?
A thorough examination of the history of engineering and race in the United States reveals significant racial injustice and harm that resulted from some actions by engineers. If the engineering community is going to do its part to heal these past racial harms and write a new narrative for the future – one that combines technological innovations and achievements with concrete contributions toward racial equity, this shadow story must be brought into the light.
Confronting this shadow does not diminish the dominant story. Rather, stepping up and owning this part of engineering’s history can result in a positive shift in values and behaviors; creating new foundation stones upon which members of the Engineering Community can build in their stewardship of technology and nature on behalf of society for the benefit of all[ii].
Illuminating the Shadow
The story of James B. Francis, Chief Engineer of the Lowell Locks & Canal Company, celebrates a giant of the engineering profession in the United States and illustrates the potential of professional entrepreneurship for engineers in contemporary practice. Starting in the 1830’s, Francis and his colleagues designed and constructed the canals, waterworks, and textile mills that formed the heart of America’s first major industrial center, driving economic growth in the region and providing inexpensive cloth for a burgeoning economy. Francis’ creative approach to this work established his reputation as the “father of hydraulic engineering.”
The shadow cast by this orthodox narrative is the largely unexamined relationship between these textile mills and slavery in America. The ever-increasing demand for raw materials to feed these engineering marvels fueled the growth of Big Cotton and a brutal slave economy in southern states. How did Francis, mill owners, consumers of the textiles, and citizens benefiting from the resulting economic boom in Massachusetts view this connection, if they considered it at all? As New England emerged as a center of abolitionist sentiment, were concerns raised and debated about technological innovation, economic growth, and the evil of slavery? Is it fair for the engineering of this industrial behemoth to stand apart from the dynamics and harm of the larger system it was directly linked to?
The civil engineering profession is particularly celebrated for its contributions toward the growth and development of post-World War II cities in America. Many of today’s leading consulting engineering firms were founded and flourished designing the subdivisions, roads, water and wastewater systems, and the associated infrastructure for urban and suburban life during this time. In projects large and small, the dominant history of civil engineering presents a story of significant contribution to both economic growth and improving quality of life for people in communities across the country.
For example, the story of Milpitas, California, describes the transformation of an unincorporated rural setting into a thriving suburb of San Jose. This was sparked by the relocation of a Ford Motor automobile assembly facility 45 miles away from its previous site in Richmond, California (a Bay Area hub of manufacturing for the war effort during World War II). A newly incorporated city of Milpitas was designed with subdivisions offering affordable housing, suburban amenities (parks and new schools), and supportive infrastructure. This newly constructed environment successfully enticed workers from the old Ford plant, along with others from within and outside the region. The economy and the community prospered, becoming part of what is now known as Silicon Valley.
Here the shadow obscures the fact that not all the workers from Ford’s Richmond plant were welcomed into Milpitas. In his book, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein brings this narrative into the light[iii], showing how a combination of local ordinances allowing only the development of single-family homes, federal specifications for government-backed mortgages which openly prohibited sales to African Americans (redlining), and other private and public actions resulted in Milpitas becoming a segregated, whites-only suburb.
Black workers who were offered the opportunity to transfer to the new facility (roughly 20% of the previous Richmond plant workforce) were systematically excluded from buying houses in the Milpitas area, despite their well-paid manufacturing jobs that should have made home ownership just as accessible for them as it was for their white co-workers. At best, those workers could move into apartments in Black neighborhoods in San Jose or navigate an exceptionally long commute from their existing housing in Richmond to the new site. The result was that most of them could not keep their jobs and were deprived of the wealth-building opportunity that accompanied the American housing boom in the next decades.
The larger shadow story of engineering for suburban America leaves significant questions about engineering and racial harm unasked and unexplored. Did engineers see and understand the racial inequity designed into the context and requirements for their efforts? Did they try to confront those conditions? Or did they limit their focus to the technical aspects of assigned projects and assume that larger social considerations were outside their scope? How does the legacy of those choices and actions affect engineering values and practices today?
Public investments in wastewater treatment technologies designed by engineers have made major improvements in public health and welfare. Benefits from this engineering work include the almost wholesale elimination of mosquito-borne, tropical diseases from the continental United States. Or so it is presented by the dominant narrative.
Catherine Coleman Flowers, illuminates the shadow story that accompanies this engineering success in her book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret[iv]. We learn from Flowers that those investments in basic sanitation systems did not reach many properties and people in poor rural areas across the South, disproportionately omitting service to Black and minority homeowners and neighborhoods.
Flowers tells of Black residents in rural areas of Lowndes County, Alabama who, still today, live in housing where raw sewage flows into open ponds on their properties due to the lack of working septic systems. In some municipalities, Black homeowners are forced to rely on costly, problematic on-site septic treatment solutions (or to do without) even though they pay fees for municipal treatment services that were never extended to their properties. Beyond the unpleasant nature of living in these conditions of filth, significant numbers of Black residents are exposed to a variety of health care maladies, including a resurgence of hookworm disease from mosquitos that thrive in the open sewage surrounding their homes.
These cases represent a small portion of the hidden narrative of racial harm and injustice that touches engineering practice in the United States. Major achievements like the design of the interstate highway system come with shadow stories of Black and minority communities severed by the construction of freeways, draining the life from thriving neighborhoods and disrupting the livelihoods of established residents. Industrial achievements such as new chemical processing and oil and gas refining plants are accompanied by the shadow of “sacrifice zones” where poor and minority residents have little choice but to live in a toxic stew of air and water pollution. Similar cases of racial harm and inequity can be found in the shadows of most fields of engineering practice, from hi-tech, to bio-medical, to extractive industries, to consumer products and manufacturing.
Toward Racial Healing and Transformation
According to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, “negative or embarrassing events, particularly those involving oppression of non-dominant groups, have too often been suppressed or conveniently forgotten in the retelling of history.[v]” Efforts to achieve racial healing and transformation must be grounded on an accurate recounting of history – one that acknowledges and includes the shadow narrative describing the role racism has played in the evolution of communities.
According to Jung, the more we try to hide our shadow side, the more we are imprisoned by it. The shadow runs counter to our conscious ideals and aspirations and “if we try to deny it or hide it … this beast winds up hurting us and others deeply. [vi]” Left unexamined and unacknowledged “whatever is buried deep inside (truths about ourselves that are not fully part of our awareness) pop up to haunt us, and they do so at all the wrong times. [vii]” To become fully human and lead authentic and effective lives, people must do the deep work required to confront and embrace our shadow.
The Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation process pioneered by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation[viii] highlights the crucial significance of this work with its prescription for communities to complete a “comprehensive historical review” of their racial history in order to set the stage for subsequent healing and transformation work. In a sign of healthy progress by the Engineering Community, this type of historical review is beginning to be used to support the implementation of new transportation projects in a variety of locations around the US[ix].
The trajectory of the unfolding Fourth Industrial Revolution, along-side global societal challenges such as climate change, environmental sustainability and poverty traps will demand the best of the Engineering Community in coming decades. To fulfill this imperative, engineers must expand their narrative, broadening awareness and understanding of the shadows of past injustice and harm while continuing to celebrate achievements and successes that are already part of the dominant history of engineering.
This new narrative can energize the creation of a new vision for practice, embracing racial justice and equity as cornerstones of our professional ethic. Engineering Change Lab – USA is currently exploring the potential of convening such a racial healing and transformation initiative. If you want to be part of this effort, please contact us for additional information (https://ecl-usa.org ).
[i] Leadership and Spirit: Breathing New Vitality and Energy into Individuals and Organizations, Russ S. Moxley, Center for Creative Leadership, Jossey-Bass, 2000.
[ii] Phrase from Tech Stewardship mission statement, Engineering Change Lab – Canada.
[iii] The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein, Liveright, 2017
[iv] Waste: One Woman’s fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, Catherine Coleman Flowers, The New Press, 2020.
[v] Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Implementation Guidebook – December 2016, W.K. Kellogg Foundation. https://www.wkkf.org/resource-directory/resources/2016/12/truth–racial-healing—transformation-implementation-guidebook
[vi] Leadership and Spirit: Breathing New Vitality and Energy into Individuals and Organizations, Russ S. Moxley.
[vii] Leadership and Spirit: Breathing New Vitality and Energy into Individuals and Organizations, Russ S. Moxley.
[viii] Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Implementation Guidebook – December 2016, W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
[ix] See Minneapolis transportation projects: