clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

CNN's Van Jones Speaks on Tech's Digital "Cotton Pickers"

"The future's going to be built by people who look nothing like us."


When CNN’s Van Jones took the stage last month at San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church a few weeks ago at the behest of Ben and Felicia Horowitz, he didn’t mince words.

“How many of you guys have a smartphone? How many of you have downloaded an app? How many of you have uploaded one?” he asked the audience of about 200 Glide regulars and friends of the Horowitz’s.

Few in the audience raised their hands.

“You know why? ’Cause you’re suckers,” he continued. “Here you are, moving your thumbs around, you’re so cool, making other people money. You know what we used to call that? Picking cotton, picking fruit in the field. Nothing wrong with it. But you deserve to be more than just digital cotton pickers in the information age. You need to be uploading and not downloading. Your genius should be tapped.”

The audience sat quietly. This was the same line of questioning Jones — a civil rights activist and lawyer — gives all the African-American students he mentors through #YesWeCode. Glide, which has a historically black congregation and a famous choir, is a symbolic place within the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, where tech startups and single-room-occupancy hotels abut one another. Tech heavyweights — led by people like Felicia Horowitz, married to Andreessen Horowitz a16z co-founder Ben — are using the space as a way to talk about race in their industry. And some of the discussions are difficult.

“Glide has been a vessel for social justice,” Felicia Horowitz said onstage.

She described her husband connecting with a rapper, Divine, over Twitter.

“Divine quickly jumped on Facebook, Twitter, you name it. One day, Divine sent a tweet out into the ether,” she said. “Someone saw it. That someone had to do with my husband Ben.”

Jones had less-positive things to say on how well Twitter was helping the underprivileged. Some comments from Jones about technology:

The technocracy, best I can tell is, it’s making a lot of apps, but stealing a lot of jobs.

I don’t think the future is being written in laws in Washington, D.C. I think the future is being written in code in Silicon Valley. And I think we’ve been playing the wrong game for the past 50 years. Thirty minutes from here is the game we should be playing.

In the black community, right now, this weekend you probably had a million black kids out there playing basketball. Why? Why? Hoping to get paid. Hoping to become LeBron James. The NBA hires 15 kids a year. You have a million kids trying out for 15 jobs. Meanwhile — Silicon Valley, the tech sector, from Austin to Boston — there’s going to be a million workers short in eight years. A million computer engineers, a million coders in eight years. And if we’re not careful, we’re going to have 15 black kids qualified for those jobs.

The future’s going to be built by people who look nothing like us. And, best I can tell, the folks in Silicon Valley are really, really passionate about creating photo-sharing apps. I don’t mean to offend anybody, but white people must have a really hard time sharing photos. Because they just really are into making more of these apps! That’s not the biggest problem in the black community.

When Jones walked off the stage, a representative from Twitter stood up and announced a $10,000 challenge grant for tech diversity causes.

Jones returned to Glide yesterday to be honored by Mark and Ali Pincus, founders of gaming company Zynga and shabby-chic marketplace One Kings Lane, respectively. They had met at a rally to save play spaces for dogs.

You can watch parts of Jones’s talk here:

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.