Civil Rights Leaders are Now Telling Tech: Fix That Diversity Problem

Mar 19 at 4pm

Rev. Jesse Jackson took to the streets today to protest the dearth of black and Hispanic talent in tech. I’m glad that someone as prominent as Jackson (who knows his way around a hot headline) was willing to publicly call attention to this pervasive, but oft ignored, problem within the tech sector. But I’m also bemused by his approach – he’s leading a delegation to Hewlett-Packard’s shareholder meeting.

I agree with Jackson’s assertion that, when it comes to hiring, board appointments, and startup funding, tech disproportionately disfavors blacks and Latinos. But while I admire his willingness to take a stand on the issue, by storming HP’s headquarters, he is confusing the symptom with the disease. The crux of the matter isn’t that companies like HP and Apple and Twitter don’t hire enough blacks and Latinos, although that is a problem. It’s that the prevailing tech ethos is inherently unreceptive to the idea that racial exclusion is something that needs to be resolved. (Sadly, there’s no app for that.)

The myth of meritocracy is so pernicious in Silicon Valley that it blinds people to the industry’s racial homogeneity.

As a black woman who has worked on Wall St. and in Silicon Valley, I can say that a diversity problem dressed up in a hoodie and FiveFingers shoes is still a diversity problem. While Wall St. continues to struggle with lack of access and equality, the myth of meritocracy is so pernicious in Silicon Valley that it blinds people to the industry’s racial homogeneity. We’ve built up a mythology around the genius/visionary/tech geek tinkering in the garage that reinforces a narrow view of who and what tech represents. (Mike Judge’s soon-to-be-a-hit show Silicon Valley, which won the Audience Award at SXSW Film last week, follows six geeky programmers as they try to navigate the turbulent tech sector. It perfectly captures the zeitgeist and, as of two episodes in, the only black characters are a stripper named Mochachino and her handler.)

The argument goes that tech is one of the few true level playing fields, that the cream rises to the top, and so any lack of representation from these ethnic segments is really just a lack of interest at best, or a lack of aptitude at worst. But ultimately, it’s the myth of bootstrapping your way to the top that absolves Silicon Valley from its responsibility to address this very real problem and to ignore its underlying causes – racism, systematic inequality in American education, and the subsequent lack of opportunities that no amount of sophisticated technology or computer science degrees can solve.

So while HP and other tech behemoths hiring more black and Latinos would certainly be a good thing, it’s definitely not the only thing that needs to be worked on. I hope that Jackson’s challenge is just the beginning of many more calls to action. But like so many of life’s thorny issues, the first step is both the hardest and the most obvious: admitting we have a problem.

Image from Thinkstock

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