Hidden Figures and Hidden Talent: Why We All Lose When Exclusion Reigns

“Society benefits when everyone succeeds.”

This is the slogan that proudly faces passersby on MDC’s front window on Main Street in Durham. I’ve seen pedestrians stop in front of MDC’s windows, visibly pondering the meaning of the above statement. This sentiment undergirds our work; despite tried and true examples of trickle-up gain resulting from initially targeted policies, the idea that “society benefits when everyone succeeds” can seem abstract at best and untrue at worst. A scarcity mentality tempts us to dismiss collective benefit and cling to the belief that for one group to succeed, to matter, and to be recognized means that another group loses something. So what does MDC’s mantra, the antithesis of scarcity, really mean, and how do we know it’s true?

This past Sunday night, a 98-year-old African-American woman appeared on stage at one of the most prestigious awards ceremonies our nation celebrates. She was greeted by a standing ovation as the crowd of stars gathered for the 89th Academy Awards cheered her legacy, the inspiration for one of the year’s highest grossing films. But Katherine Johnson’s achievements are far more profound than the narrative of a blockbuster. Looking out at a sea of glamor and elitism, Katherine Johnson proudly exemplified why success and opportunity are not a zero-sum game.

Her story, as many have come to know it, is portrayed in the recent film Hidden Figures, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s true account of four black women who played a key role in 1960s Space Race through their work at NASA. Though the film collapses the historical timeline and creates composite characters, the film has been acclaimed as an impressively accurate account of the struggles and triumphs of black female mathematicians relegated to backstage yet critical work at NASA. The film follows the work of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji Henson) at the height of the nation’s anxiety over Russian advances in space—and the U.S.’s lagging pace. In a time of looming threat from a foreign power, U.S. residents across region and identity had a vested interest in putting all hands and minds on deck to maximize talent and progress. But Jim Crow laws in Virginia, where NASA was working to send the first American into orbit, stubbornly and systemically inhibited equal inclusion of all American talent. Though Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson had the skill, intellect, and passion needed to make a difference in America’s voyage to space, the narrative of white and male superiority is clear and biting: “We don’t need your talent. We can go farther without you.”

Except: yes, they do, and no, they can’t.

Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson, who start out in the film as human “computers” in the all-black West campus of NASA know the worth and necessity of their talent, and choose to persist against unjust obstacles to make their vital contributions. (Their stories are examples of personal heroism that, as we’ve discussed here on the State of the South blog, can come at a high cost and ought not to be placed on individuals to begin with.)

Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson attending engineering courses at an all-white school. Source: https://www.theaterbyte.com/tb_env_gly_/hidden-figures-2016

Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson attending engineering courses at an all-white school. Source: https://www.theaterbyte.com/tb_env_gly_/hidden-figures-2016

Mary Jackson notices a defect of the heat shield surrounding the capsule that will carry John Glenn into space. But without the credentials offered by the whites-only school in Hampton, V.A., Jackson is barred from contributing her talent. Engineering in Virginia, therefore, is structurally maintained as a white field, for white talent. The American people are eagerly awaiting Glenn’s journey to space; little do they know the progress of U.S. space advancement is tied to the progress of integrating their schools—a measure met with opposition from large segments of the Southern white population. Jackson petitions the city of Hampton to allow her entry to the all-white school and breaks the barrier that had been erected to keep people of color from accessing opportunity and actualizing their talent. What is seen by opponents of integration as an advantage for people of color and a loss for white students and families is, actually, a gain for the entire nation.

Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn teaching black female mathematicians about the IBM 7090. Source: https://ladybusiness.dreamwidth.org/2017/01/09/hidden-figures-brings-the-excellence-of-historic-black-women-to-2017.html

Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn teaching black female mathematicians about the IBM 7090. Source: https://ladybusiness.dreamwidth.org/2017/01/09/hidden-figures-brings-the-excellence-of-historic-black-women-to-2017.html

Dorothy Vaughn similarly asserts herself in NASA’s work to accelerate progress in space travel. With the arrival of the IBM 7090, a machine that can rapidly compute calculations, Vaughn realizes that the new IBM could displace the black female computers she unofficially oversees. She throws herself into learning about the machine to ensure a place for her talent in the transition to using the IBM. But of course, the literature that would help her learn about the machine is in the whites-only section of the library. In the film, Vaughn’s character “bends” the rules by taking the book from the library, even though it is not approved reading for African Americans. From this book, she teaches not only herself, but also her all-black team of female mathematicians. By educating herself, which required covert studying and disobeying Jim Crow laws, Vaughn becomes the first person to successfully operate the IBM—something that made everyone’s work easier, more efficient, and ultimately made the U.S. more competitive.

Taraji Henson as Katherine Johnson, the first black female members of NASA’s Space Task Group Source: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/how-hidden-figures-got-1960s-kodachrome-look-963042

Finally, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson, who faces discouraging messages and procedures at every turn. She’s needed on the Space Task Group to calculate high-level equations to ensure Glenn’s safe orbit—the first black female to serve on the prestigious team—but she’s resented by her white counterparts. Her colleagues undermine her abilities and her contributions—everything from installing a “colored” coffee maker and excluding her from critical meetings. When Katherine spends critical work time walking miles to the “colored” bathroom, when she’s given partial information because she’s not deemed trustworthy, the nation falls further behind in the Space Race. But when segregation of facilities is no longer enforced and Katherine demands and is provided a seat at the table during top-secret meetings and knowledge-sharing, only then does the U.S. emerge victorious in sending the first American into orbit. Our whole nation benefited when Katherine succeeded, and she had the opportunity to fully contribute her talents only when intentionally exclusive, white-supremacist barriers came toppling down.

Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson’s stories teach us about the collective cost and unnecessary drain caused by Jim Crow policies in the South, as well as raise the question of why so many defended these policies in the first place. In hindsight, it seems obvious that structural and micro-level racial discriminations divided critical talent and held the whole country back. Stories like this always cause me to think: What kinds of harmful inequities will seem obvious to us fifty years from now? Instead of experiencing this history lesson and blockbuster film as a voyeuristic trip to the past, Americans can use the insights gained from Hidden Figures to sharpen our understanding of current barriers to opportunity—and consider what we all might be losing in defense of policies and structural practices that make it harder for those suppressed by disadvantage to maximize their full potential.

And surely there is much unsupported talent trapped in the lowest income quintile, particularly here in the American South, where a child born to parents with earnings at the bottom of the rung has only a 0-6.4 percent chance of entering a career with earnings in the top income quintile as an adult. The researchers who unearthed these alarming data found that this stalled mobility was associated with lower quality schools, high rates of racial residential segregation, lack of connection to social capital, lack of two-earner households, and high rates of income inequality. These factors exacerbate one another: income inequality combined with racial residential segregation creates inequitable quality of schools, negatively affecting students of color at a disproportionate rate, given local school funding formulas that often rely on property taxes. These economic mobility toxins plague the South at a higher rate than any other region in the U.S.—the same region, of course, that clung to racial segregation and Jim Crow legal discrimination for so many years. These exclusive policies were designed to bar people of color from accessing the same degree of opportunity and success as the white population, and the data show us that historical educational and economic suppression carry long-lasting symptoms that have intergenerational effects on families and entire communities.

Source: New York Times, based on Equality of Opportunity Project data

Source: New York Times, based on Equality of Opportunity Project data

But the stories shared in Hidden Figures tell us that when the walls of exclusion are lifted, when white superiority is debunked as talent across identities is valued, we all go farther together. Our nation houses an abundance of unique passion and talent. The choice is ours: Will we make room for our collective potential and insist on equity for all, from childhood to the workforce? Or will we pay the price of our own scarcity mentality? Like the film’s character Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) tells a white NASA worker, who is disgruntled by Katherine Johnson’s presence and recognition of talent, “We get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.” Or—as we like to say at MDC: “Society benefits when everyone succeeds.”