Class Struggle at AfroTech

A hooded sweatshirt sold at AfroTech. Black with text that reads: "Black Tech, Green Money."

Does gentrification hit differently when it’s a Nupe that pushes you out of your neighborhood? Or do the Somali teenagers dodging hellfire missiles after they’ve been declared terrorists for falling into the wrong gender and age brackets in the wrong country at the wrong time feel the #BlackGirlMagic when the dev-ops engineer that keeps the Pentagon’s drone infrastructure humming on AWS is an African woman? Put another way – are African people who are able to find professional and material success within the genocidal global system of capitalism individual examples of what we as a people should aspire to? Do their contradictions weigh less than their representation? And does that representation count as a real contribution toward our struggle for liberation? 

Afrotech is those contradictions made flesh and an interesting jumping-off point for considering those questions. AfroTech is just what it sounds like: a gathering of Africans in the tech industry, mostly those based in the US but with representation from the continent and all over the diaspora. It’s a two-day conference that’s three years old, founded in 2016 by the online blog, Blavity, of the “Blavity Blacks” shade. Since then AfroTech has accumulated over a hundred corporate sponsors: startups, tech giants, and marketing agencies eager to slide through and scoop up some easy Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion clout. The conference boasts a multi-million dollar budget and a disorienting number of participants – ten thousand in 2019 – and those participants are are almost all young, African, and at least theoretically upwardly mobile.

AfroTech’s vibe is sort of like a frantic corporate-branded hot Blerd mixer slash fashion show and that was surely the intent. The Blavity Blacks have created a “see and be seen and preen” but also Stay Woke (TM) situation that most appeals to its target audience: the African petit-bourgeois.  The day party Blacks. That segment of our people that’s risen to the slightly more stable but still mostly precarious reality of belonging to the colonized white-collar, managerial, and entrepreneurial class within a white supremacist capitalist system. That segment that’s fully aware of their precariousness but that’s fully committed to staying latched where they’re at like lampreys – sometimes gnawing and wriggling their way upwards but mostly trying not to go down or ever, ever go back. Wherever back may be. 

For reasons that are definitely related to all that the African petit-bourgeois, like all colonized petit-bourgeois, is a group that greatly appreciates marketability and rhetoric – good branding. To that end AfroTech is made in their image: carefully curated music from live DJs (obviously), record parties in sneaker stores, jollof rice and fried shrimp, Lexus experience booths, talks about getting rich while saving the world, Instagram-worthy branded merchandise – all for a crisp $475 general admission ticket price that without sponsorship sits well out of reach for the overwhelming majority African people. Not just in the United States but on Earth. It’s a strange experience. My work paid for me to go. 

In the weeks before the conference, we got emails telling us to bring our elevator pitches, notebooks, and resumes and plans to dress for success – Wakanda style, upscale, or casual. Once you got there it was many hot, tight, loud spaces. An unfathomable number of petit-bourgeois Africans packed into a series of large rooms. Folks wandered through a maze of bodies and bright lights with iPhones, business cards, and Facebook-branded ‘I Am Black in Tech’ tote bags in hand – seeking to be seen or to mingle with grinning African reps from Amazon, PayPal, Twitter, Atlassian. There were talks throughout – all falling into leadership, entrepreneurship, or design tracks – some of them quite good, technically speaking. Emotionally it was overwhelming. There was a feeling of blending into the crowd that’s exceedingly rare the further into tech  (or most rapidly gentrifying major West coast cities) you go but there was also a surface-level woke chocolate Gordon Gecko thing happening that was distressing and absurd. 

African petit-bourgeois ideology says that their individual advancement is our collective uplift. Making it out of the hood and into an office with a foosball table where you help make facial recognition software for ICE or racist auto-moderation software for social media that constantly bans your relatives is you being your ancestors’ wildest dreams. The practical implication of what you’re getting paid to do – that is helping the empire-controlled tech industry build infrastructure that facilitates the oppression and exploitation of colonized peoples the world over – doesn’t matter as long as you – a person who is also colonized but sometimes able to monetize it – are making good. 

Still, representation can be intoxicating. Spaces where it’s just us – even if just aesthetically and rhetorically – are energizing and affirming. That’s why neo-colonialism has been so effective. It was difficult not to be moved, even slightly, by the sight of a thick African woman in lapel mic, miniskirt, and red lipstick making an argument for automation to a standing room only crowd of her own people. Imagine ideas and spaces like that in the hands of a mass African people’s movement, fighting to make a collective contribution to our struggle for justice and self-determination, building apps and infrastructure that would allow us to movement build and share ideas securely and independently worldwide. In real life the talk was marketed to salaried developers trying to save on costs for the maintenance of vast corporate infrastructure for billion-dollar corporations – server farms of thousands of machines in the desert somewhere running Facebook’s creepy surveillance empire. 

Obviously, AfroTech is not in the hands of a people’s movement. AfroTech is a tightly stratified corporate space – separated into members (moneyed) only and general admission areas kept apart by miles of green chains, plastic privacy shrubs, and platinum ticket holder-only double doors to VIP food truck pods. Though majority African and held in the publicly accessible heart of a city that has found itself in a tech industry provoked and African proletarian-led class war against mass displacement, AfroTech revels in a culture of exclusivity and narrow access. The clash between these contradictions – an exclusive space for the rich and rich-aligned shaped around the identity of a colonized and exploited people held in a city decimated by technocrats – came to a head at AfroTech’s community stage.

The community stage was located three blocks away from Afrotech’s “main campus” in a large canvas wedding tent that filled half a parking lot. It was one of the few parts of the conference that was open to the public and accessible for free and without a QR-coded Afrotech badge. Throughout the day I spent at the conference, the community stage hosted a variety of talks from African people’s organizations local to the Bay who were each in their own way attempting to collectivize tech among our people. I wondered how the community stage had come to be. I have a guess: in every white supremacist capitalist space – neocolonial and not – there are Africans struggling the best they can within the narrow parameters defined for them against the honky tide – trying to “change things from the inside.” You know, use intrinsically parasitic and anti-life colonizer institutions and their appendages for good somehow. Africans who haven’t yet come to the realization that the DEI horizon will always be just slightly out of reach and that pressing towards it too aggressively will definitely make these crackers fire you. I imagine the stage was the product of a lot of a struggle from some folks like that. That’s just a guess though. 

But anyway – of all the talks I saw that day, the most impactful and by far the most well attended – and the one where the class struggle at AfroTech got real –  was a panel at the community stage featuring former members of the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party. The entire community stage tent – 500 seats – was filled for the panel and Africans who couldn’t find seats filled the aisles and lined up against the walls. That a free panel drew such a large crowd of our people at such a corporate-choreographed conference is a testament to the lasting impact and undeniable legacy of the Black Panther Party. Even the most public and unrepentant of our sellouts – the full-on greed is good negroes – are forced to pay a grudging homage to the memory and work of the Panthers. Of course most often when the Black Panthers are brought up in this society their politics are barely touched upon in favor of a whitewashed discussion of their aesthetic and survival programs dragged out of ideological context but the point is they can never be erased completely. In any space where the masses of our people gather to talk about what it will take to be free – particularly in Oakland – the Black Panther Party’s legacy looms and our people are drawn to it. That’s what that panel’s attendance represents.

On the panel was a moderator, Jena Dominique a community organizer from Oakland, and three former Black Panther Party members – Dr. Saturu Ned, Katherine Campbell, and Francis Moore. The former two had become professors the last, Moore, was a working-class community organizer who’d once been forced into a period of extended houselessness due to tech industry-driven displacement in Oakland until the community organized to get her a home. 

Each former Panther shared their story of being recruited into the organization – how they found it and what made them join. What it felt like to be part of it. They shared stories of organizing the school breakfast and sickle cell testing programs, distributing the party newspaper, and the challenges and triumphs of building up a revolutionary political organization in the heart of a settler empire. They shared with great pride the motivation between the development of the Party’s ten-point program and why they worked so hard to build internationalist ties with other oppressed people’s movements in the US and worldwide. I’ve personally heard stories like theirs many times from Panthers living all over the world but learning about what they were able to build through organization, political education, and the mass support and love of their people never gets any less inspiring no matter how often I hear it. The members of the Black Panther Party weren’t superheroes, they were regular poor and working-class Africans who decided one day to contribute collectively in any way that they could to the liberation of their people.  And they did. 

As the presentation came to a close, the moderator asked the panel what responsibility they felt Africans in tech had to struggle against oppression in Oakland and worldwide. The first, Katherine Campbell, eternal organizer, plugged an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Party’s free breakfast program for children, exhorting the audience over the sound of polite applause to attend if they would still be in Oakland and donate some portion of their middle-class salaries to help support this event if they couldn’t. Community defense programs, she explained, were the heart and soul of the Panthers’ work precisely because they represented self-determination in practice – meeting the material needs of oppressed Africans that the white supremacist settler-colonial capitalist state could not in order to increase their capacity to fight for revolution and ultimately the overthrow of that state. She didn’t say that last part but that’s the implication in a revolutionary socialist organization which is what the Black Panther Party was. Anyway, the next Panther, Francis Moore the still working-class organizer, stated flatly that the tech industry had taken more than it had given from Oakland, what they had given had not been worth it, and that poor and working-class people who lived there could not take more. Our people needed organization to stop the tech industry’s exploitation of the city. African members of the tech industry have a responsibility to support that work and give back. An uncomfortable silence hung over the room after she finished like someone had farted, before the last Panther on the Panel, Dr. Saturu Ned said we needed African engineers building apps for African small businesses and African versions of Twitter and Facebook and the room erupted into cheers and thunderous applause. At that point, I walked out.

It should be clear at this point that I went into AfroTech with heavy skepticism. It could be said that I found what I was looking for. But there’s nothing I could have experienced there that would have convinced me that African representation within corporations that are helping Western governments more effectively round up, exile, and kill colonized people is a net benefit for the struggle worldwide. Individual advancement has never meant collective uplift. An African sitting at the table doesn’t cancel out the brutality the meeting was called to organize. We have a responsibility to our people, to our struggle, and to the whole oppressed world. In a post-Obama world, it is more important than ever that we assess the position of all of our people within the empire and outside of it. We can’t buy this place’s bullshit. We can’t accept individual advancement for colonized blood. Complicity with genocide doesn’t suddenly become forgivable when it’s an African behind Skynet.