Where Are the Black Futurists?A week or so ago, I had drifted off to sleep watching some budget hearing on C-SPAN, and when I awoke the hearing was over and a panel of four people were talking about the future. All four of them were White, and they were talking about trends that will shape the nation’s future. Not only were the presenters all White, but the content of the discussion seemed to ignore issues of diversity. To be sure, there was talk of shifts in the way transportation will be provided, which has implications for urban areas. And there was talk about a change in the way education would be organized. I waited to hear the four panelists or their interviewers say something about the status of the African American community, but after an hour, I had dozed back to sleep without hearing a thing.The pace of change is so rapid in our society that it makes sense for us to think about what the future might look like. Futurists look ahead in the long run, 10, 20, or even 30 years out, to see what they think the world will look like. It’s not just mumbo jumbo. Strategic thinkers combine existing trends and technological innovations with estimates about demography, political organization and social structure, to come up with a vision of what the future might hold. Those who describe themselves as futurists have professional training in economics, sociology, public policy, science and other fields. They’ve made predictions as wild as the Dow hitting 40,000 by 2016, or the establishment of a human presence on Mars by 2022. All of these predictions were reported in the World Future Society’s magazine, The Futurist. Little in the magazine spoke to people of color. Are we simply irrelevant in the future?Nat Irvin II, founder of FutureFocus 2020, says our relevance will increase, not diminish. He predicts that by 2020, the United States will have elected its first African American president, a woman graduate from a historically Black college. His president is a Green Party nominee named Sheniqua Nakada-Herrera Hiawatha Jones. He also predicts that more African Americans than ever will enter business and begin to close the gaps between our community and the majority community. FutureFocus 2020 exists to look at the future of urban America, with a particular focus on minority populations, and to encourage future thinking among children and youth, especially in minority populations. Irvin has got his work cut out for him — as the late night C-SPAN session illustrated, there are too many people talking about the future without considering the future of African Americans and other people of color.By not considering us, is the majority implicitly suggesting that we don’t matter? Do they think that as America ages, we will continue to play the traditional service and support roles for their communities? When I hear estimates from the U.S. Department of Labor that we’ll need nearly a million home health aides in the next decade, and I know that most home health aides now are Black and Brown women, I conclude that unless the wage structure changes, the future implications for those women and their families are frightening. But the futurists mainly seem to be predicting what an aging society will need without predicting who will provide it. Future predictions too often depend on a set of assumptions that may or may not reflect a multicultural reality. Nat Irvin’s prediction that a young African American woman of mixed background will attain the presidency in just 20 years rests on his assumptions about the sheer increase in the number of people of color in the United States. He is assuming that they will be registered voters and political participants, and that somehow large enough numbers of White Americans will have their racial biases shattered. He also is assuming a seismic shift in political organization to give new prominence to the Green Party; a shift that is perhaps foreshadowed by the role Ralph Nader has played in the 2000 elections. What could go wrong with his prediction? Rising numbers of voters of color might spark a new set of requirements or restrictions for voters. Political rigidity could provide Sheniqua Jones with the Green Party nomination but no visibility in the debates, diminishing her votes. Or, she could be the spoiler factor that throws the election to David Duke IV, the grandson of the vituperative Louisiana Republican. Predictions, then, rest on assumptions that are shaped by our cultural experiences as beliefs, as well as by our mindset, pessimistic or optimistic.How can we interpret advances in biotechnology (defined as the use of living organisms to create products) and their impact on African Americans? Imagine that there is something in melanin that could cure cancer. Would our melanin be taken by force? Sold to the highest bidder? Would the heavily African American prison population be able to broker melanin into freedom, or would 21st century Tuskegee experiments ensue? A futurist with no knowledge of the Tuskegee experiments could not, perhaps, conceive a scenario where such atrocities are repeated. This is one of the reasons why African American participation in this business of future forecasting is so very important. Nat Irvin’s program is housed in the Babcock School of Business at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he is executive professor. FutureFocus 2020 produces a quarterly newsletter, maintains an active Web site <http://www.futurefocus2020.org> and is available to provide technical assistance to colleges and universities who want to develop a future studies curriculum. It’s a start. But I predict that late-night, all-White speculations about the future are likely to continue until African Americans are more forceful about coming together to look ahead.
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Division Director, Division of Graduate Education
National Science Foundation
Dean of the College of Social Work
The University of Tennessee Knoxville
Dean of the Tickle College of Engineering
The University of Tennessee Knoxville