Solidarity is nice, but jobs and investment in black workers and businesses is better.
Many tech leaders and companies have tweeted out support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death and police brutality protests sweeping the nation. Acknowledging tragedy and injustice at all, and not actively enabling racism — we’re looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg — is a positive for the often whitewashed tech industry. Floyd died after a police officer, who has since been charged with 3rd-degree murder, kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Minneapolis is grieving for a reason. To paraphrase Dr. King, the negative peace which is the absence of tension is no substitute for the positive peace which is the presence of justice. Justice is how we heal.
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) May 29, 2020
However, people of color in the tech diversity space say the tweets don’t go far enough. There’s a better way tech executives in particular can promote racial equality, that would have more impact than a tweet: hiring black employees, fostering equitable workplaces, creating anti-racist products, and investing in black startups and other businesses.
“We’ve seen a number of leaders and companies speak out, but Black and brown people in tech are still waiting to see if this will lead to transformational change,” Aniyia Williams and Syreeta Martin, of Black & Brown Founders, an organization that supports entrepreneurs of color, wrote over email. “Use your privilege, platform, resources and influence to help bring about a change. A change that is measurable, sustainable, shaped and led by Black and Latinx people.”
Diversity among tech employees has remained dismally low, despite many commitments by companies to improve. At major organizations like Google, black employees comprise around 4 percent to 5 percent of the workforce. Diversity hiring programs over the past five years have only yielded a single percent or two of improvement. What’s more, Karla Monterroso, the CEO of Code2040, an organization that works to empower people of color in tech jobs, said since the election of President Trump progress has stalled in both attitudes towards diverse hiring, and actual hires made.
“Going into 2017, it was really clear that companies had at that point in time started to disinvest from diversity programs,” Monterroso said. “It really did hit its apex this year of that slowdown.”
We had an obscenely difficult time selling fellows program spots this year, as we were told company after company had cut funding for “these kinds of initiatives”. And many had an expectation that we philanthropically subsidize the HR work of their workplaces.
— Karla Monterroso #BlackLivesMatter (@karlitaliliana) May 30, 2020
The connection between police brutality perpetrated against black people, and a fair and diverse tech world, might not seem obvious. However, they are connected. The lack of diversity in tech workplaces is a result of all the ways our institutions keep people of color from economic opportunity. If tech leaders can truly examine, and hopefully seek to improve, why their companies most likely don’t employ many people of color, they can begin to repair their own biases, enable economic empowerment, and be conscientious members of local communities their companies too often disrupt.
Some tech leaders such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi have pledged money to Black Lives Matter and other criminal justice causes in social media posts (Facebook pledged $10 million; Uber promised $1 million). However, some leaders say that creating systemic change within the tech world would be much more powerful than a tweet, and even a donation.
“While I think it’s great that they are giving money in this moment, there are things in your backyard that are happening that you are not giving money for,” Monterroso said.
Mashable spoke with leaders of organizations that are trying to improve racial equity in tech. Here’s what they had to say for how tech leaders can do more to support black lives than just tweet.
1) Face the tech world’s blind spots
The mythology of Silicon Valley revolves around meritocracy: that the best ideas (and people) will rise to the top. However, the economic and societal barriers that keep people of color out of higher education, job interviews, and board rooms tells another story. Correcting that problem involves acknowledging the implicit racism within the tech world — and reaching out directly to black people to help.
“What I have appreciated with some of the folks reaching out and what I’m seeing, is that they’re at least saying I’m looking to support my black employees, my black suppliers, black founders, etc.,” Rodney Sampson, who has worked for decades to promote equity in tech and runs an organization called OHUB that places and empowers people of color in tech jobs, said. “Acknowledgement is sort of a first step.”
There are a host of other problems Sampson said leaders need to take a hard look at. Chief among them is how tech hubs disrupt and gentrify communities of color, and how job opportunities don’t make their way to local communities. The first step to solving those problems? Taking an honest look at yourself.
“Tech being so influential in really being a driving force of innovation throughout the world, really opening up and being transparent about their shortcomings is critical,” Sherrell Dorsey, the founder of a website covering black innovation, The Plug, said.
2) Be accountable to your promises
The outpouring of support from the tech world caught Dorsey by surprise. She and her team began cataloguing all of the statements made by tech leaders and companies, and comparing them to donations made, diversity statistics, and more, in order to keep a record of these extraordinary times. Not letting the promises made in tweets float into the social media ether will be a critical next step in translating solidarity into action.
“Whatever the place is coming from to make these statements, all the attention is on the next move.”
“I think transparency is definitely key,” Dorsey said. “Whatever the place is coming from to make these statements, all the attention is on the next move. This list continues to grow.”
What’s more, it shouldn’t be up to people of color to hold the white tech world accountable. That responsibility has to come from within. Martin, with Black & Brown Founders, encourages tech leaders to 1) “Make space for our presence” and 2) “Acknowledge our experiences and our truth.”
“When you or your white colleagues, friends or families, find yourselves falling short on #1 and #2, call it out and take accountability through action, not just words,” Martin said.
3) Put your money where your mouth is and actually hire people of color
Before COVID-19, according to Monterroso, there were 700,000 open jobs in tech. And yet reports show that people of color are not being hired for them.
“You have an available talent pool, you have a lot of open jobs,” Monterroso said. “We are not giving jobs to every person who gets trained.”
Tech has touted its commitment to diversity again and again, yet jobs have not materialized.
“I’m actually fairly done with the ‘commitments’ to hire more people,” Monterroso said. “They’ve been committing to hire more people since 2014 at least, if not more than that. That is not enough. Hiring them is enough. Actually do the hiring.”
4) Revamp the hiring process, evaluation, and retention
The tech world contains barriers that both keep people of color out of jobs and undermine their success. Hiring, evaluation, and workplace environment needs an overhaul.
To help people get their foot in the door, hiring managers should stop using elite educations as a way to pre-screen candidates.
“By making university pedigree the largest factor in screening, what companies do is disproportionately take out black and Latinx people [from] a university system we already know is disenfranchising students,” Monterroso said. “They are outsourcing their hiring to a university system that requires money, not just for entrance, but for preparation for standardized testing.”
Multiple experts brought up problems with employee retention at tech companies. Monterroso said that black employees get disproportionately low marks on performance reviews, which most likely speaks to bias in assessment, not performance. Additionally, workplaces can inadvertently push out black employees by fostering unwelcoming environments. One former Google employee wrote eloquently of the phenomenon in a memo circulated last year of how he “never stopped feeling the burden of being black” while working at Google.
“Make space for our presence,” Martin said. “This means not questioning whether we should be somewhere that you’re at — be it personally or professionally. And definitely make space at the table from which you sit and lead.”
5) Reinvest in black businesses and venture funds
Hiring is not the only way to empower black people in tech. Sampson pointed out a huge discrepancy in investments in startups with black founders, particularly black women founders. This should be a moment for change in how black businesses and funds get supported. There are also specific corporate incentives created to fund businesses that benefit low income communities, called opportunity zones; investors should educate themselves on how to take advantage of these programs. Additionally, companies can also look to their operational budget to work with black-owned vendors.
“A company may argue they don’t have extra money to do hiring right now, they could spend money with black-owned businesses,” Sampson said.
Sampson wants to see the promises of this moment translate into black board members and funded companies.
“Forget the virtue signaling,” Sampson said. “Write a check. Write a large check. If you want to fund black economic empowerment, fund black businesses.”
6) Develop progressive products. And please, make sure your current products don’t enable racism
Some pointed Twitter moments emerged after Brand Twitter started to verbally support the Black Lives Matter movement. For example, the ACLU called out Amazon’s tweet in support of Black Lives Matter, suggesting that stopping the sale of racist facial recognition software to police departments would be more effective than a nice sentiment. (Multiple tests have found that facial recognition algorithms, including Amazon’s, misidentify people of color more often than white people).
“New technologies are actively and/or passively oppressive,” Deldelp Medina, of Black & Brown Founders, said. “From the automation of jobs to the elimination of well-paid work (for folks of color and Black folks in particular), to the gathering of personal data which is used to prosecute, give sentencing guidelines, and incarcerate, we are seeing it increase, not level off.”
From facial recognition software that could enable the surveillance of protesters to algorithms that amplify messages of hate, tech has often been complicit or enabling of racism and racist institutions. If tech leaders are tweeting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, they can start with not actively contributing to the problem.
“No amount of money that is given out to criminal justice organizations by Mark Zuckerberg through CZI, [Zuckerberg’s family foundation], changes that that product is incentivizing and coloring the dialogue of the country,” Monterroso said of Facebook and how its algorithm tends to favor polarizing content, including spreading demonizing characterizations of the recent protests seeking justice for Floyd.
Some tech companies have taken steps to reorient their products and business deals in ways that don’t enable hatred. But Sampson, and others, want to see more real world action.
“It’s not time for kumbaya solidarity,” Sampson said. “It’s gotta be transactional.”