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Of executive orders and hidden figures

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-07-2017 Siddharth Pai

President Donald J. Trump, like other US presidents before him, has been using presidential executive orders to set about his legislative agenda. These orders need to be later ratified by the American legislatures, but are a good way to introduce executive action with immediate effect unless, of course, the order poses a threat to the US Constitution and can be challenged in the country’s courts.

On the 18th of April this year, the White House released an executive order entitled “Buy American and Hire American”. Among other things, this order addressed the H-1B visa, long a pain point for outsourcers and an easy piñata for politicians on both sides of the American political divide. While it did not make any changes to the existing law, it called for a stringent review of existing practices and asked for the secretaries of various departments to “suggest reforms to help ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries”.

This executive order will play out over time, and is not the first one that has been issued over visa reform, but for today’s column, I would rather we take a walk down memory lane and look at two other executive orders instead. Both were issued by president Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in 1941. Executive order 8802 ended segregation in the defence industry and order 9346 created the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Both were designed to end racial segregation in governmental jobs.

One of the unlikely results of FDR’s landmark orders was that during World War II, a group of African-American women rose to prominence in the development of America’s wartime science and technology. These women form the subject of a sensitively written book called Hidden Figures authored by Margot Lee Shetterly, who grew up in Virginia, surrounded by African-American adults who, for their entire careers, had worked in science, mathematics and engineering.

Shetterly recounts how before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or Nasa, was formed in 1958 to best the Soviet Union in the space race, it was preceded by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. NACA was originally formed in 1915, and was focused on developing warplanes and other flying machines. Its principal place of work was the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, the town where Shetterly grew up.

After FDR signed his executive orders, NACA hired its first African-American employees as human “computers”. They were called computers since their job was to perform complex mathematical calculations used for aeronautical engineering. Technological advances, where electronic computing machines could handle these sorts of calculations, were still decades away, and it wasn’t until the 1970’s that the electronic machines began to replace the human computers and the last of these employees retired in 1980.

According to Shetterly, the first group of African-American women at NACA were called “West Computers” since they were all assigned to work in the west wing of the Langley laboratory, separated from the white employees in other parts of the institution. By the middle of World War II, the Langley laboratory was testing several new aircraft designs and was in desperate need of more mathematicians or “computers” to make calculations that would help maximize the efficiency, safety, aerodynamics and power of these aircraft, and hired several more African-Americans to help with these computations.

The book tells the story of many brave African-American women who had to endure racism and other degrading practices such as being forced to use separate bathrooms and dining areas. Unlike the whites, they were also not given housing or transport by the Langley authorities and, so, had to fend for themselves in unfriendly Virginia, one of the hotbeds of opposition to the civil rights struggles that arose in many parts of the US while these women were employed at the Langley laboratories. J. Lindsay Almond, who became governor of Virginia in the late 1950’s is famously known for having said that “integration anywhere means destruction everywhere”.

Despite the discrimination, the important work of the African-American “computers” continued even after NACA became Nasa and a lady “computer” named Katherine Johnson was intimately involved in calculating the trajectories of the Nasa flight that sent the first US astronaut into space in 1962. Evidently, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, and later a US senator for 24 years, placed so much faith in Katherine Johnson that he asked her to personally do all the calculations so that he would be certain he was safe. He repeated this request years later, asking her to compute the numbers for the Apollo 11 moon mission. So important were her contributions that in 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honour.

I am tempted to compare FDR’s executive orders with the one that Trump signed on 18 April. I have read that Prime Minister Narendra Modi baffled the Trump administration by remaining totally mum on the H-1B visa issue and the Paris climate accord during his recent meetings at the White House. Borrowing from this tactic, I shall be silent and allow readers to arrive at their own views on the philosophical differences between FDR and Trump.

There is another space race on now, this time among the technology titans of this world. As they look for more ways to strengthen their hold on the internet, the entrepreneurs behind these titans are funding space exploration for different reasons than the US and the Soviet Union did in the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Blue Origin is a privately funded firm heavily backed by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and SpaceX was founded and is run by Elon Musk of Tesla.

Just as World War II and the Cold War era space race led to the need for expanding the labour pool by tapping into an excluded populace, might this new space race once again engender inclusiveness in the search for the best technological minds on the planet?

Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has personally led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.

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