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Black lawmakers will visit Silicon Valley to press Facebook, Twitter and others to improve their diversity

The push to hire more minorities comes as Facebook and Twitter take heat for racist content on their platforms.

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Rep. Barbara Lee (center)
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A pair of powerful black lawmakers in the U.S. Congress will visit Silicon Valley next week to push companies like Airbnb, Facebook, Twitter, Lyft and Uber to improve diversity.

Beginning Monday, the two Democratic pols — Reps. Barbara Lee and G.K. Butterfield — plan to stress in meetings with those five tech giants and others that their efforts to hire and retain more black engineers and executives just haven’t progressed swiftly enough.

In an interview with Recode, Lee said she would also prod Facebook and Twitter to address racist content that has been spread on their platforms, particularly in light of reports that Russian agents — in a bid to stir political unrest in the United States — shared such messages on social media during the 2016 presidential election.

“They have got to understand, they’ve got to move quicker,” Lee said of the tech industry as a whole.

Then, turning to Facebook and Twitter, she continued: “And they’ve got to figure out a way to stop allowing these ads that really undermine our elections and create havoc, really, in communities by trying to create division and hostility and hatred.”

The house call by the Congressional Black Caucus is part of its campaign called Tech2020, which aims to increase the representation of African-American workers at all levels of the tech industry — engineers at startups, the investors who fund them, and the executives that run companies or serve on their corporate boards.

CBC lawmakers launched their initiative in 2015, when Democrats had more power in the nation’s capital — and at the time, they even threatened to regulate the tech industry if it failed to improve its hiring practices. In the age of President Donald Trump, however, Lee conceded that it had become more difficult.

“I don’t think they have a real commitment,” she said of Republicans on issues related to diversity.

Some of the CBC’s biggest victories, however, have come as a result of lawmakers tapping the power of their bully pulpit. Last year, for example, CBC members slammed Airbnb over reports that its home-sharing hosts had discriminated against black renters, contributing to the tech giant’s subsequent internal investigation, along with a series of reforms. More recently, CBC members urged Uber this summer to hire more people of color, as the ride-hailing company seeks to fill a long list of leadership vacancies. Lee said in an interview that the CBC would revive that call during its meeting with Uber this week.

Amid the sustained pressure from the CBC and other critics, some in Silicon Valley have committed to changing the way they recruit and retain workers, with an eye on finding and training more employees from underrepresented groups. But their own diversity data show progress has come slowly.

At Facebook, for example, it’s still the case that roughly half of its team in the U.S. is white, according to a report released in August. Black engineers only account for 3 percent of the social giant’s U.S. payroll. Facebook recently has said it is making strides in addressing other diversity issues, including hiring more women.

At Twitter, meanwhile, roughly 57 percent of its U.S. workforce is white, and about 3 percent is black, according to its 2016 data. For many tech giants, though, the problem spans well beyond their rank-and-file employees: Lyft and Uber, to name two, count no black workers in tech leadership roles, the two companies have reported recently.

To that end, Butterfield and Lee plan to press those companies — and others like Intel, Salesforce and TaskRabbit -- to redouble their efforts. “I have many qualified constituents who would like to work in the tech sector,” Lee said, “and systematically they are just denied these opportunities over and over again.”

They also intend to urge companies to appoint more black executives and board members. And for those tech firms that still do not share data about their workers, the Democratic lawmakers are asking them to start publishing annual reports.

But their visit takes on added significance amid reports about Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential election. In a bid to sow social and political unrest, Kremlin-backed trolls turned to social media, sharing posts and purchasing ads that specifically inflamed racial tensions — particularly around groups like Black Lives Matter.

Some CBC members quickly criticized Facebook and Twitter for allowing racist messaging to spread at all on their platforms. And the entire caucus pressed Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, about the issue during a private meeting Thursday on Capitol Hill.

“It was very disturbing, some of what has taken place, and we let het know that very clearly,” Lee said of the meeting. She called on Facebook to release all 3,000 Russia-backed ads, which the company previously said it would work with lawmakers to do.

Facebook also has pledged to hire 1,000 new workers to review future ads. And there, too, Lee said it was important for the social giant to employ more “African-Americans and people of color analyzing these ads” and their effects.

At the moment, though, “when you look at their numbers they just don’t have that,” the congresswoman said.

For his part, Butterfield said at a press conference Thursday that Facebook had committed to appointing a new black board member. Hours later, the CBC acknowledged in a press release that board diversity was “something that Facebook committed to changing” during meetings with black lawmakers “two years ago” — and still had not yet done.

A spokesman for Facebook declined to comment on the meeting.

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