Tech industry giants have expressed solidarity for the movement for black lives following the officer-involved fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. But the outpouring of support raised a question: Will tech address its own problems with racism in the ranks?
Facebook headquarters posted a “Black Lives Matter” sign filled with the names of black people killed by police. Google tweeted a public statement that it “stand[s] in solidarity with the fight for racial justice.”
DeRay Mckesson, a prominent activist and Campaign Zero co-founder, was arrested in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Saturday while using Periscope and wearing a T-shirt featuring the Twitter bird and the hashtag #StayWoke. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff tweeted the viral photo of Mckesson’s arrest, applauding “tech as a vehicle for social change.”
Benioff later apologized when another Twitter user accused him of reappropriating Mckesson’s act of civil disobedience. Still, his gaffe exemplified why some people think these acts of solidarity look more like branding opportunities and self-congratulation.
There’s no doubt that the tech industry shows great influence when it publicly affirms black lives. But the affirmation is questionable when it comes from an industry whose longstanding issues with diverse staffing don’t necessarily show they value African Americans beyond using their platform.
The tech industry needs to invest in black lives outside of police killings
The Black Lives Matter movement has been focused largely on officer-involved shootings of black people, but the emphasis is not just limited to America’s racist criminal justice system. It also addresses the devaluing of people of color, particularly African Americans, in other facets of society, including the nation’s burgeoning tech industry.
At Google, a company that has provided more than $5 million in grants to racial justice organizations in the past year alone, just 2 percent of employees were black, as of this January. In 2015, only 2 percent of Facebook employees were African Americans. For both companies, black people were (slightly) better represented in non-tech jobs, compared with tech and executive positions.
And while a 2014 Pew Research Center study found that African Americans use Twitter at higher rates than other internet users, the company’s staff at the end of 2015 was only 2 percent black.
“Beyond the tone-deaf tweets of the tech industry’s very white workforce while Black Twitter has yet another emotional meltdown, one begins to wonder, where are the initiatives from Silicon Valley heavyweights to make this stop?” Justin Edmund, a former Facebook engineer, wrote on Medium last week.
Edmund added: “Silicon Valley does not treat black people like people, it treats them like a statistic.”
This isn’t for lack of talent: A 2014 report by USA Today showed that African Americans are graduating with computer science and computer engineering degrees at twice the rate they are being hired for corresponding tech positions.
The industry’s embrace isn’t entirely arbitrary. Technology is one of the defining characteristics of the movement for black lives. The Black Lives Matter organization, which now boasts 37 chapters in the US alone, started as a simple 2013 Facebook post by co-founder Alicia Garza. Twitter has been integral to organizing efforts around the country since the Ferguson uprising. And one of the only reasons we know Castile’s name is because his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, used Facebook Live to record the moments immediately after he was shot.
And yet the fight for racial justice does not begin and end with social media, especially when social media companies fail to invest in black lives themselves.
There is no doubt that technology is a vehicle for change. But when technology companies refuse to rectify racial inequalities within their own organizations, they remain an integral part of the very problems black people use their platforms to solve.